Sep 19, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers at Columbia Engineering, the engineering department of New York’s Columbia University, have developed a 3D printed synthetic soft muscle with an “intrinsic expansion ability.” The incredible actuator, which paves the way for fully soft robots, can lift 1,000 times its own weight.

Shut down your computers and get out your motorbikes, because the dawn of human-like robots may be closer than you think. Researchers at Columbia Engineering have just completed “a big piece of the puzzle” in the development of fully soft robots, having developed an amazing 3D printed muscle that is three times stronger than human muscle and which can lift 1,000 times its own weight.

Up until now, roboticists have typically attempted to recreate the function of muscles using systems that don’t really behave like muscles at all. 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.

The Columbia researchers behind this synthetic new 3D printed muscle say their creation more realistically replicates the behavior of muscles, and is—crucially—an example of soft robotics. Soft robotics offer distinct advantages over hard robotic systems like pneumatics, since they can be used to carry out natural motions like grasping and manipulation, and often take up less physical space than hard robotic devices.

“We've been making great strides toward making robots minds, but robot bodies are still primitive," said Hod Lipson, the professor of mechanical engineering responsible for leading the group at the Creative Machines lab. "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 3D printed muscle has a strain density (expansion per gram) 15 times larger than organic muscle, and also has a low density. This is thanks to a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol distributed throughout the muscle in micro-bubbles—a concoction brewed up by lead author Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral researcher in the Creative Machines lab. The solution, which is cheap, environmentally safe, and easy to fabricate, offers elastic properties and extreme volume change attributes.

What this ultimately means is that scientists are now able to create a key part of a human-like robot, and with capabilities that actually exceed those of humans. Just image that muscle, three times stronger than yours, launching a baseball, carrying construction equipment, or assembling a large-scale 3D printer.

But although the synthetic muscle has much more in common with natural muscle than hydraulic or pneumatic systems do, it doesn’t exactly function in an organic way. In fact, it is electrically actuated using a thin resistive wire and a low power of 8V. Tests showed it to be capable of expanding up to 900 per cent when electrically heated to 80°C, and this expansion-contraction ability means it can perform a huge range of motion tasks.

And at the end of the day, it is this range of motion tasks that will make the soft actuator a highly useful piece of kit for many future projects.

"Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today," said Miriyev. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”

The Columbia researchers now plan to incorporate conductive materials to replace the embedded wire in the muscle, shortening response time and increasing shelf life. In the more distant future, the group hopes to use artificial intelligence (AI) to control the muscle, giving it the potential to make brilliantly lifelike movement.

The researchers’ paper, “Soft Material for Soft Actuators,” has been published in Nature Communications.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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