Origami-inspired soft robots lift 1000x their own weight for a dollar


Researchers at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Harvard's Wyss Institute have developed a soft robotic muscle inspired by the Japanese art of paper folding.

The scientists, leaders in the fast-expanding field of soft robotics, were pursuing one of the grand challenges in engineering: the development of so-called actuators, or artificial muscles, to endow machines with strength. The skeleton is folded in a certain pattern, filled with fluid, and sealed inside a protective "skin" (which can be something be as innocuous as a plastic or textile layer bag).

"We were very surprised by how strong the muscles were".

New research from the Wyss Institute: origami-inspired muscles are both soft and strong, and can be made for less than $1.

Thanks to their construction they require no directional input, instead the instructions for how it should behave are folded into the design of the muscle itself.

When the volume of fluid within the sacs was adjusted using an electric pump, a tension is created to drive movement, a method which is safer than artificial muscles driven by highly pressurised fluids, they added. They can generate about six times more force per unit area than mammalian skeletal muscle can, and are also incredibly lightweight; a 2.6-gram muscle can lift a 3-kilogram object, which is the equivalent of a mallard duck lifting a vehicle.

The simplicity and flexibility mean that the artificial muscles can be created in sizes ranging from millimeters to meters, which would come in handy for one application that is already being eyed for the origami technology.

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Foldable artificial muscles can lift 1000 times their weight, be made in just 10 minutes and cost less than a dollar. The soft robots fold based on their structure needing no complex electronic control systems to do so. This approach allows the muscles to be very compact and simple, and thus more appropriate for mobile or body-mounted systems that can not accommodate large or heavy machinery.

The team said that being powered by vacuum makes their products safer than other artificial muscles now being tested.

These soft synthetic creations are also awful at carrying out numerous tasks robots should be best at, including lifting anything heavier than an apple.

In order to give soft robots this artificial strength, each "muscle" consists of an internal skeleton.

Potential usage examples include surgical devices, exoskeletons, deep sea manipulators and even architecture that can change its shape or function when needed and large structures that can be sent into space to aid exploration.

"The possibilities really are limitless".

This research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

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