Artificial muscles – lighter, safer, more robust

January 30, 2024

Soft robots could interact with their environment in a completely different way; for example, they could cushion impacts the way human limbs do, or grasp an object delicately. The functioning of artificial muscles is thus based on biology. Like their natural counterparts, artificial muscles contract in response to an electrical impulse. However, the artificial muscles consist not of cells and fibres but of a pouch filled with a liquid (usually oil), the shell of which is partially covered in electrodes. They have published their version of an artificial muscle that offers several advantages in external pageScience Advancescall_made.

Many roboticists dream of building robots that are not just a combination of metal or other hard materials and motors but also softer and more adaptable. Soft robots could interact with their environment in a completely different way; for example, they could cushion impacts the way human limbs do, or grasp an object delicately. This would also offer benefits regarding energy consumption: robot motion today usually requires a lot of energy to maintain a position, whereas soft systems could store energy well, too. So, what could be more obvious than to take the human muscle as a model and attempt to recreate it?

The functioning of artificial muscles is thus based on biology. Like their natural counterparts, artificial muscles contract in response to an electrical impulse. However, the artificial muscles consist not of cells and fibres but of a pouch filled with a liquid (usually oil), the shell of which is partially covered in electrodes. When these electrodes receive an electrical voltage, they draw together and push the liquid into the rest of the pouch, which flexes and is thus capable of lifting a weight. A single pouch is analogous to a short bundle of muscle fibres; several of these can be connected to form a complete propulsion element, which is also referred to as an actuator or simply as an artificial muscle.

Voltage too high

The idea of developing artificial muscles is not new, but until now, there has been a major obstacle to realising it: electrostatic actuators worked only with extremely high voltages of around 6,000 to 10,000 volts. This requirement had several ramifications: for instance, the muscles had to be connected to large, heavy voltage amplifiers; they did not work in water; and they weren’t entirely safe for humans. A new solution has now been developed by Robert Katzschmann, a robotics professor at ETH Zurich, together with Stephan-Daniel Gravert, Elia Varini and further colleagues. They have published their version of an artificial muscle that offers several advantages in external pageScience Advancescall_made.

The source of this news is from ETH Zurich

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