Researchers at Columbia Engineering have just completed "a big piece of the puzzle" in the development of fully soft robots, having developed an awesome 3D printed muscle that is three times stronger than human muscle and which can lift 1,000 times its own weight.
'This is a big piece of the puzzle and, like biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand ways. Pneumatic or hydraulic inflation devices, often housed in elastomer skins, can be programmed to do all the pushing and pulling required of real muscles, but these distinctly inhuman systems require external compressors and pressure-regulating equipment, meaning they often can't be incorporated into smaller robots. "We've overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots". Unlike rigid robots, soft robots can replicate natural motion - grasping and manipulation - to provide medical and other types of assistance, perform delicate tasks, or pick up soft objects.
The muscle makes use of a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol distributed throughout in micro-bubbles. Once it has been 3D printed, the muscle is actuated with the use of a low-power (8V) input, via a thin wire. It was tested in a variety of robotic applications where it showed significant expansion-contraction ability, being capable of expansion up to 900% when electrically heated to 80°C.
"Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionising the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today".
"It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight".
"It is the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle", Miriyev said.
The researchers will continue to build on this development, incorporating conductive materials to replace the embedded wire, accelerating the muscle's response time and increasing its shelf life. They are also looking to have artificial intelligence control the muscle's movements, giving it a more enhanced, human-like, and purposeful movement.