In a giant leap for soft robotics, origami-inspired artificial muscles have been developed that can lift 1000 times their own weight. And what’s more, they can be made in less than 10 minutes and cost less than a Gregg’s festive bake.
Films such as Ex Machina may portray robots with fluid and graceful movement, but in reality robots are clunky as hell. One only needs to watch Channel 4’s The Sexbots Are Coming to see that our current ‘androids’ are about as lifelike as George Osborne.
One of the main reasons for this failure to mimic the natural movements of organic beings is the trade-off that must be made between soft and resilient materials. In an ideal scenario, robots could use ‘soft’ machinery to simulate the highly evolved and efficient movements of muscles. But softer materials are weak and fragile – not ideal for machinery. So engineers must instead use rigid and sturdy materials to build their poor imitations of life.
The artificial muscles are powered by vacuums, which suck air or water out of chambers to contract the ‘muscle’ and drive the motion.
Finding a way that would allow robotics to utilise soft materials in their designs would increase flexibility and dexterity in androids and allow a more natural interaction with humans. But it’s not all about making a more realistic sexbot. Soft robotics has huge potential in everything from manufacturing to medicine. Companies around the world have been pumping vast amounts of money into research, experimenting with a range of various materials to crack this detrimental trade off between strength and dexterity. Whilst the field has come a long way over the past decade, this new origami-inspired development could revolutionise the industry
Researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created artificial muscles that use only air or water pressure to lift up to 1000 times their own weight. As New Scientist so elegantly described it, that’s “a weight to strength ratio equivalent to a newborn lifting a Land Rover.” Pretty impressive. Even the research team said they were surprised by how good the outcome was and have likened the results to giving robots ‘superpowers’.
The artificial muscles are powered by vacuums, which suck air or water out of chambers to contract the ‘muscle’ and drive the motion. They can be made from a range of materials, including metal springs, packing foam and plastic sheets folded into a certain pattern, and can be constructed into various shapes and sizes, but they each follow the same basic principle. They have an inner ‘skeleton’ that is surrounded by air or water and an outer ‘skin’ that seals this inside. When the vacuum is initiated the skin contracts on to the skeleton, which creates tension and drives the motion. It is an incredibly simple yet effective design that relies purely on the shape and composition of the skeleton.
Their simple design means a single muscle can be made in under ten minutes and cost less than 75p to produce
These artificial muscles, or ‘actuators’, can generate around six times more force than our muscles can, but they are also nimble enough to pick up a delicate flower from the ground. Their simple design means a single muscle can be made in under ten minutes and cost less than 75p to produce.
"Artificial muscle-like actuators are one of the most important grand challenges in all of engineering," says Rob Wood, Ph.D., co-author of the findings and Founding Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute, and Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "Now that we have created actuators with properties similar to natural muscle, we can imagine building almost any robot for almost any task.”
Whether that’s an exciting, or terrifying prospect, is up for debate. But either way, a new generation of robots are on the horizon.