Scientists are still struggling to create robots that are going to move effortlessly and flexibly. However, increased flexibility and dexterity has a trade-off of reduced strength, as softer materials are generally not as strong or resilient as inflexible ones, which limits their use.
Inspired by the folding technique of origami, United States researchers said they have crafted cheap, artificial muscles for robots that give them the power to lift up to 1,000 times their own weight.
"Here we propose an architecture for fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles".
"We were very surprised by how strong the muscles were", says MIT researcher Daniela Rus while highlighting the capabilities of these mucles. We expected they'd have a higher maximum functional weight than ordinary soft robots, but we didn't expect a thousand-fold increase.
"The skeleton may be a spring, a folded structure in the form of origami, or any solid structure with voids articulated or elastic", says the study. This can be constructed out of various material, the team explains, be it plastic sheet or coiled metal.
The team concealed skeletons capable of compressing themselves within sealed sacs of fluid or air, which allows the artificial muscles to complete complex movements powerfully and energy-efficiently. The muscle pulls taught when a vacuum is created inside the skin, and goes slack when the vacuum is released. That's basically what happens when the artificial muscle contracts. But instead of having a rigid structure, inner layers are made up of flexible material - such as plastic or metal coil - and folded into a specific pattern. "Maybe you have a sling, and now the sling is active and really stimulates your legs or your arms or your back muscles to get to where you want to be". The new technology could improve the muscles and keep it compact and simple. According to Rus, a muscle that bends in a certain way can potentially help simplify the algorithms needed to run the machine.
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This action also allows the muscles to contract down to 10pc of their original size and when moving can generate about six times more force per unit area than human skeletons can.
One of their designs - a 2.6 gram muscle - was able to lift a three kilogram object, which the researchers describe as "the equivalent of a mallard duck lifting a car".
The new muscle, which is made from materials costing less than a dollar, works without any power source.
"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", said co-author of the paper Daniel Vogt, M.S. A water-soluble version has also been developed, opening the door to potential use for ingestible robots.
(B) The actuator can still function when physically constrained, seen here wedged in a bolt nut.