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These Artificial Muscles From MIT and Harvard Could Give Robots ‘Superpowers’

November 28, 2017, 4:48 PM UTC

Researchers from MIT and Harvard say they are on their way to creating robots with “superpowers.”

Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering created origami-inspired artificial muscles that, among other feats, allow robots to lift objects 1,000 times heavier than they are, according to a release from CSAIL.

The possibilities don’t stop there, explains CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, adding that the work builds upon past research from her team.

“You could get a robot to move faster, you could get a robot to fly, or to move on water, or to roll or to scoop things, depending on what kind of exoskeleton you attach to the robot,” she says.

Each muscle, Rus explains, is made up of a compressible but solid skeletal system, encased by a bag of “skin.” The space between the skin and the skeleton is filled with fluid, and as the volume of fluid changes, alterations in pressure cause tension, which allows the muscles to move without human input. The muscles — which take just 10 minutes and less than $1 to create — can be programmed to move in multiple directions and have been shown to flex uninterrupted for days at a time.

“The fluid is used to create a pressure difference. The origami compressible skeleton regulates the outward motion. And the strong force produced is due to the tension of the flexible material,” Rus explains. “It’s a little bit like using pulleys and levers to amplify force.”

The muscles are also quite versatile. Researchers successfully built versions using a variety of materials, ranging from metal springs to packing foam, and in a wide array of sizes. That flexibility means the inventions could be used in arenas ranging from medicine to architecture to space exploration, Rus says.

“We can have soft robots on the manufacturing floors for safe human-robot interactions. We could also have soft robots with these kinds of exoskeletons helping people with assisted movements,” Rus says. “Maybe you have a sling, and now the sling is active and really stimulates your legs or your arms or your back muscles to get to where you want to be.”

Learn more in the video above, or in the paper published in the journal PNAS.