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Artificial muscles could one day help robots lift massive objects

Researchers from Columbia University have created a new type of artificial muscle that could allow robots to lift things up to 1000 times their own weight, a study in Nature Communications reports.

The team created the new technology with a 3D printing technique. The rubber-like material — which is heated by a small electric current — not only lifts like real muscle, but it is able to expand up to nine times its normal size as well. That gives it a lot of flexibility other such substances do not have.

During the study, the team found that the muscle has a strain density — the amount of energy stored in each gram of a stretched elastic body — 15 times greater than natural muscle.

“We’ve been making great strides toward making robot minds, but robot bodies are still primitive,” said study co-author Hod Lipson, a professor at Columbia University, according to Telegraph UK. “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 new muscles are important because, not only could they be used to make better, stronger robots, they could also lead to more effective surgical devices and help out any field where careful manipulation is important. Lifting is the main application, but the soft material could go far beyond that.

“Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today,” said lead author Aslan Miriyev, a researcher at Columbia University, in a statement. “It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”

The team hopes to expand on the new study by furthering the muscle’s development. They also plan to use better materials, which will help accelerate the muscle’s response time and also increase its shelf life.

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