Muscle-like actuators could help create more delicate robots

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder have created soft, musclelike actuators that are able to both perform large and delicate tasks, according to recent research published in the journal Science.

Robots — especially ones used in manufacturing — have long been good at repetitive tasks that require lots of power, such as welding. However, their motions in gentler tasks are quite rigid and awkward. They also can also be a bit dangerous to humans who get too close. As a result, researchers are attempting to create softer versions that can work alongside or with humans.

The team in the new study have aided this process by building muscle-like structures that offer machines new strength and sensitivity. Their actuators start with small plastic pouches that contain an insulating liquid. Then, when researchers apply a voltage between electrodes placed on both sides of the pouch, they squeeze the liquid and cause it to flow into nearby regions. That causes the actuator to change shape and move whatever it is connected to.

Currently, the team in the study has created three soft muscle designs using this process. All of them contract with the same precision and force as mammalian skeletal muscles, and they are so precise that they allowed the machines to both pick up and hold a raspberry. In addition,

The scientists also built two other muscle designs that contract linearly like a human bicep, which allows them to lift far more than their own weight.

“This is a very big step,” said Robert Shepherd, a soft robotics expert at Cornell University who was not involved in the research, according to Science. “What they’ve got is the benefit of the fluid system with direct electrical control.”

That combination of mechanisms is key because it could one day lead to new applications, including more lifelike prosthetic devices and soft robots that can work alongside people without safety concerns. The team hopes to expand on the actuators to mass produce robots that could be readily integrated into modern society.

“We’d like to do this as soon as possible to start making an impact on people’s lives,” said study co-author Cristoph Keplinger, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, according to ZME Science.

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