When you hear the words “soft robot” you probably don’t think “lifting power” but that’s exactly what cheap artificial muscles can do thanks to researchers from Harvard and MIT.
Because soft materials are not as strong as their ridged counterparts, the teams took to developing inexpensive artificial muscles to give soft robots super strength. Using only air or water pressure to assist the robots in lifting objects to one thousand times their own weight, also allows the robots to bend and flex in less, roboty fashion.
The actuator is made of an inner skeleton that can be made from a range of materials like a metal coil or folded plastic, and is surrounded by air or liquid before being sealed in a plastic or textile outer skin. Muscle movement is triggered when a vacuum created inside the skin collapses around the skeleton, causing tension in the structure that results in movement.
An actuator can be put together in around 10 minutes using materials that cost less than a dollar. And to demonstrate scalability, the researchers have made artificial muscles as small as a few millimeters to a meter, without any dip in performance.
Researchers believe these robots could be used for surgical devices, exoskeletons, deep sea operations, as well as architecture that can change its shape or function when needed or large structures that can be sent into space to aid exploration. A water-soluble version has also been developed, for potential ingestible robots.