Scientists at the Mbadachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have developed a variety of artificial muscles inspired by origami that can lift up to a thousand times their own weight and yet be skillful enough to grab and lift a delicate flower .  The devices, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer a new way of giving soft robots great resistance, which could be used everywhere from inside our bodies to outer space.
Historically, metal robots and other hard materials have been made because they give them strength. But robots must also be made of soft and flexible parts to occupy hard-to-reach places, navigate in unpredictable environments and interact safely with people. (Consider, for example, the dangers of shaking the hand of a robot with a steel grip.)
So scientists have increasingly tried to make robots with soft parts. In earlier times, those bits were relegated to the outside of a hard robot, essentially as stuffing. But researchers are building more and more robots whose other crucial parts are soft, even creating a robot inspired by the octopus.
"We have been interested in soft robots for a long time because they are safe, because they are compliant and because they can handle uncertainty," said robotics researcher Daniela Rus, director of the Laboratory of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at MIT and one of the main authors of the study. "They are very robust and easy to control, in relative terms."
But there has been a great inconvenience for soft body bots: unlike robots made of hard materials, they are not exactly power lifters.
"What we want are soft, safe and compatible robots that have strength, that have the properties that can now be achieved with hard body systems," Rus said. "In this way we have the best of both worlds."
Rus and his colleagues solved this problem by resorting to origami techniques, which have recently proven to be useful in manufacturing many types of robots. (One of those robots, RoboBee, was started by another lead author, Robert Wood of Harvard.) Origami's techniques have the potential to produce many complex designs at low cost because they use surprisingly simple amounts of material and processes.
For this work, scientists used origami techniques to create muscle-like structures that could give flexibility to the extremities but still allow them to move without the need for hard parts.
Designed folded structures specifically designed to shorten, curl, twist or bend in specific ways when compressed. Researchers sealed those long folded structures in a polymeric "skin" bag and filled them with air or other fluid. When a vacuum sucked the fluid, the origami structure was compressed, contorting in the way determined by its folding patterns.
] Researchers discovered that some origami muscles could compress to a tenth of their original size, or lift up to a thousand times their own weight.They could produce approximately six times as much force per unit area as the muscles of mammals.
The pattern of folds can only move one way, but Rus said that many different patterns could be attached to a multifunctional robot, such as an origami Swiss Army knife.
These robotic limbs could be used at tiny scales, perhaps to do odd jobs. repair within our bodies, they could be useful on a large scale, to build in outer space. Portable items for lifting heavy objects, or being sent to explore deep-water environments. They could even do the most mundane deceptive tasks, such as lifting a heavy carton of milk or a cluster of grapes without crushing them.
A proof of concept on a more human scale could be next on the construction list, the scientist said.
"I want to make an elephant," Rus said with a smile. "Or maybe an elephant baby."
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