Researchers have created origami-inspired artificial muscles that add strength to soft robots, allowing them to lift objects that are up to 1,000 times their own weight using only air or water pressure.
The team constructed dozens of muscles using materials ranging from metal springs to packing foam to sheets of plastic, and experimented with different skeleton shapes to create muscles that can contract down to 10 percent of their original size, lift a delicate flower off the ground, and twist into a coil, all simply by sucking the air out of them.
Above – Artificial muscles, driven by air or water pressure, can be customized into nearly any shape and lift up to 1,000 times their own weight. (Video courtesy of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering)
Not only can the artificial muscles move in many ways, they do so with impressive resilience. They can generate about six times more force per unit area than mammalian skeletal muscle can, and are also lightweight; a 2.6-gram muscle can lift a 3-kilogram object, which is the equivalent of a mallard duck lifting a car. Additionally, a single muscle can be constructed within ten minutes using materials that cost less than $1, making them cheap and easy to test and iterate.
These muscles can be powered by a vacuum, a feature that makes them safer than most of the other artificial muscles currently being tested. “A lot of the applications of soft robots are human-centric, so of course it’s important to think about safety,” said Daniel Vogt, co-author of the paper and Research Engineer at the Wyss Institute. “Vacuum-based muscles have a lower risk of rupture, failure, and damage, and they don’t expand when they’re operating, so you can integrate them into closer-fitting robots on the human body.”
“In addition to their muscle-like properties, these soft actuators are highly scalable. We have built them at sizes ranging from a few millimeters up to a meter, and their performance holds up across the board,” said Wood. This feature means that the muscles can be used in numerous applications at multiple scales, such as miniature surgical devices, wearable robotic exoskeletons, transformable architecture, deep-sea manipulators for research or construction, and large deployable structures for space exploration.
The team was even able to construct the muscles out of the water-soluble polymer PVA, which opens the possibility of robots that can perform tasks in natural settings with minimal environmental impact, as well as ingestible robots that move to the proper place in the body and then dissolve to release a drug. “The possibilities really are limitless. 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,” said Rus.
Artificial muscles are flexible actuators with capabilities similar to, or even beyond, natural muscles. They have been widely used in many applications as alternatives to more traditional rigid electromagnetic motors. Numerous studies focus on rapid design and low-cost fabrication of artificial muscles with customized performances. Here, we present an architecture for fluidic artificial muscles with unprecedented performance-to-cost ratio. These artificial muscles can be programed to produce not only a single contraction but also complex multiaxial actuation, and even controllable motion with multiple degrees of freedom. Moreover, a wide variety of materials and fabrication processes can be used to build the artificial muscles with other functions beyond basic actuation.
Artificial muscles hold promise for safe and powerful actuation for myriad common machines and robots. However, the design, fabrication, and implementation of artificial muscles are often limited by their material costs, operating principle, scalability, and single-degree-of-freedom contractile actuation motions. Here we propose an architecture for fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles. This concept requires only a compressible skeleton, a flexible skin, and a fluid medium. A mechanical model is developed to explain the interaction of the three components. A fabrication method is introduced to rapidly manufacture low-cost artificial muscles using various materials and at multiple scales. The artificial muscles can be programed to achieve multiaxial motions including contraction, bending, and torsion. These motions can be aggregated into systems with multiple degrees of freedom, which are able to produce controllable motions at different rates. Our artificial muscles can be driven by fluids at negative pressures (relative to ambient). This feature makes actuation safer than most other fluidic artificial muscles that operate with positive pressures. Experiments reveal that these muscles can contract over 90% of their initial lengths, generate stresses of ∼600 kPa, and produce peak power densities over 2 kW/kg—all equal to, or in excess of, natural muscle. This architecture for artificial muscles opens the door to rapid design and low-cost fabrication of actuation systems for numerous applications at multiple scales, ranging from miniature medical devices to wearable robotic exoskeletons to large deployable structures for space exploration.