Soft Robots acquires Origami Skeletons for Super-Strength (Video)
Scientists have developed artificial muscles inspired by origami that could allow soft robots to lift objects up to 1,000 times its own weight.
Soft robotics, a field of robotics dedicated to compatible devices that mimic living organisms, is considered promising in a variety of fields. However, since there is an inherent compromise between materials and strength, current applications tend to be limited to light applications such as fruit harvesting.
The new technology, developed by a group of the Laboratory of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence of MIT (CSAIL) and the Wyss Institute of Harvard, promise to endow soft robots with greater resistance that could be used in applications ranging from surgery minimally invasive until research on the high seas.
According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) each artificial muscle consists of an interior "skeleton" surrounded by air or fluid and sealed inside a "skin" bag, both made from a variety of materials.
A vacuum cleaner was applied to the inside of the bag, initiating the movement of the muscle causing the skin to collapse in the skeleton, creating tension that drives the movement. Muscular movement is completely determined by the shape and composition of the skeleton.
"One of the key aspects of these muscles is that they are programmable, in the sense that the design of how the skeleton folds defines how the entire structure moves." Basically, you get that motion for free, without the need for a control system, "said Ph.D. Shuguang Li, who worked on the project.
This allows the muscles to be very compact and simple, and therefore more appropriate for mobile or bodily devices – badembled systems that can not accommodate large or heavy machinery.
During the tests, the team built dozens of muscles using materials ranging from metal springs to plastic sheets, and experimented with different skeletons to create muscles that can contract up to 10 per cent of their original size, lift a flower from floor and turn it into a spiral, all simply sucking the air. In one case, a muscle of 2.6 g was used to lift an object of 3 kg.
"We were very surprised at how strong the muscles were," said CSAIL director Daniela Rus. "We expected them to have a higher maximum functional weight than ordinary soft robots, but we did not expect a thousand-fold increase, it's like giving these robots superpowers."
The next thing I would like to build with these muscles is an elephant robot with a trunk
It is also said that the actuators are highly scalable, from a few millimeters up to a meter, and their performance is maintained in all areas . The research group says this means that muscles could potentially be used in numerous applications at multiple scales: from miniature surgical devices to large deployable structures for space exploration.
The team was even able to build the muscles out of the water – soluble PVA polymer, which opens up the possibility that robots can perform tasks in natural environments with minimal environmental impact, as well as ingestible devices that move to the right place in the body and then dissolve to release a drug.
"The possibilities really have no limits," Rus said. "But the next thing I would like to build with these muscles is an elephant robot with a trunk that can manipulate the world as flexibly and powerfully as it looks in real elephants."