Robots are about to get a whole lot stronger.
Researchers at MIT and Harvard have developed new “artificial muscles” that can turn soft robots into super lifters. The robotic muscles can lift up to 1,000 times their own weight, which experts say will lead to endless possibilities for the future of the field.
Though the power sounds intimidating — a 2.6-gram muscle lifted a 3 kilogram (about 6.6 pounds) object, according to the researchers, which is equivalent to a duck lifting a car — experts assure that it’s safe.
Robotic muscles aren’t completely new, but these ones, developed by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, do things differently.
Other robotic muscles use “positive pressure,” like inflating a balloon, explained Rob Wood, a professor of engineering at Harvard and co-senior author of the study on the new muscles. Those devices can only inflate so far, however, before they rupture.
These new origami-inspired muscles feature a folded material (like a polyester sheet) inside of a soft “skin” (like PVC film). That folded material acts as a “skeleton” and is surrounded inside the skin by either air or fluid.
“The skin that wraps around it is really what’s doing the work,” Wood said. “Instead of working like a typical fluidic artificial muscle, where we pressurize them like a balloon, we use vacuums, [which is] negative pressure.”
The muscle moves, lifts or curls — its action depends on the shape it’s folded into — when the vacuum is applied. That action, and the soft materials they’re made of, make these muscles safer.
“Yes, it can lift 1,000 times its owns weight, but if I pull on it, it’s going to un-form. It’s not a rigid metal bar or a hydraulic piston you might find in other robots,” Wood said. “The other aspect in using negative pressure as opposed to positive is it will not explode if it fails and run risk to people around it.”
These muscles are not only safe, they’re cheap: A muscle can be made in 10 minutes and for less than $1.
“I think some of the first materials [co-author] Shuguang Li played around with were in the recycle bin in the lab,” Wood said. “Just taking these scrap materials and the concept he came up with, we wouldn't have guessed they would work so well.”
Because the muscles are easy to make, Wood hopes more people, even elementary school students, will use them to create their own robots.
Researchers also hope these muscles will be used to build stronger robots that can interact safely with people, like in hospital settings, or expand wearable robotics, like how a robotic suit helps stroke patients walk.
“The possibilities really are limitless,” co-author and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus said in a statement. “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.”