OrigamiInspired Artificial Muscles Are Here to Pump Robots Up
Evan Rachel Wood Just As Disturbed by Humanoid Sophia As Everyone ElseMIT’s Thread-Like Robot Slides Through Blood Vessels In the Brain Stay on target In order to defeat the human race and take over the world, robots require dexterity as well as strength.Increased flexibility, however, often means reduced durability; softer materials just aren’t as resilient as hard ones.Researchers at MIT CSAIL and Harvard’s Wyss Institute have created origami-inspired artificial muscles that allow soft robots to lift objects up to 1,000 times their own weight.One of the team’s 2.6-gram muscles, for instance, can lift a 3-kilogram item. That’s the equivalent of a duck lifting a car (and no, its ducklings are not trapped underneath).“We were very surprised by how strong the muscles were,” CSAIL director Daniela Rus said in a statement. “We expected they’d have a higher maximum functional weight than ordinary soft robots, but we didn’t expect a thousand-fold increase. It’s like giving these robots superpowers.”Now that’s just cool (via MIT CSAIL/Harvard Wyss Institute)Even more impressive, individual muscles can be constructed in about 10 minutes using materials that cost less than $1.Each bundle of faux tissue consists of an inner compressible “skeleton,” surrounded by air or water and sealed inside a bag of “skin” made from various materials (like thermoplastic polyurethane, silicone rubber, or nylon fabric—not human flesh).Now, imagine placing a spoon (the skeleton) inside an inflated balloon (the skin), and sucking all the air out of the balloon until you’re left with only a latex-covered utensil. That’s basically what happens when the artificial muscle contracts.No power source or human input is required; movement is determined entirely by the shape and composition of the skeleton.“One of the key aspects of these muscles is that they’re programmable, in the sense that designing how the skeleton folds defines how the whole structure moves,” MIT postdoc and paper lead Shuguang Li explained. “You essentially get that motion for free, without the need for a control system.”This allows scientists to shrink artificial muscles to an appropriate size for use in mobile or body-mounted systems.Early models were constructed using materials ranging from metal springs to packing foam to sheets of plastic. The team experimented with different skeletal shapes to create muscles that contract to 10 percent of their original size, and complete tasks like lifting a delicate flower or twisting into a coil.“In addition to their muscle-like properties, these soft actuators are highly scalable” Robert Wood, professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard, said. “We have built them at sizes ranging from a few millimeters up to a meter, and their performance holds up across the board.”Future applications include everything from minimally invasive surgery and transformable architecture to deep-sea research and space exploration (via MIT CSAIL/Harvard Wyss Institute)Researchers are already eyeing the muscles’ use in future applications, such as minimally invasive surgery, transformable architecture, deep-sea research, and space exploration.The use of water-soluble polymer PVA, meanwhile, opens even more possibilities. Just think, one day we might swallow tiny robots that can navigate through the body and dissolve to release a drug.“The possibilities really are limitless,” Rus said. “But the very next thing I would like to build with these muscles is an elephant robot with a trunk that can manipulate the world in ways that are as flexible and powerful as you see in real elephants.”Dream big.Read more about the study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.