While the “brains” of robots have been gaining power over the past few years, their bodies have remained not too far removed from the old mechanical ones you see in a 1970s sci-fi. But now, a revolutionary new material promises to provide our future robot-overlords with soft, life-like, and super-strong muscles.
Scientists at Columbia Engineering have created a synthetic soft "muscle" that is capable of lifting over 1,000 times its own weight, overcoming what is “one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots."
Taking inspiration from living creatures, it’s a major step away from the current mechanical gait towards a more subtle and finely-tuned movement. The research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
"We've been making great strides toward making robots minds, but robot bodies are still primitive," said project lead Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia Engineering. "This is a big piece of the puzzle and, like biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand ways. We've overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots."
The 3D-printable material is able to contract and expand like a real muscle yet does not require any external compressor or high voltage equipment. When it’s heated through a low electrical charge the muscle expands, and when cooled, it contracts. It consists of a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol distributed throughout in micro-bubbles, meaning it's also easy to fabricate, relatively low cost, and made of environmentally safe materials.
The researchers have already tested out their new robo-muscle in a variety of different tasks through computer controls. Of course, this neat development is a long way off from gaining the dexterity of an animal muscle. But in a small demonstration of its potential, they have shown how this material can be used as a bicep to lift a human skeleton’s arm to a 90-degree position.
"Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today," lead author Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral robotics researcher, said. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”