This throbbing, lifelike robot muscle lifts 1,000 times its own weight

A “big piece of the puzzle” in creating lifelike robots may have been solved, thanks to a new form of synthetic muscle that’s three times as strong as natural tissue and can lift 1,000 times its own weight.

Researchers at Columbia University have created a 3D-printable synthetic soft muscle that, crucially, can work without the need of an external compressor or high voltage equipment.

As outlined in a study published by Nature Communications, the material can function as a soft muscle actuator and may lead to robots that are able to provide medical assistance, along with delicate tasks such as manipulating soft objects. The scientists say nothing about developing an enormous robot fist to crush their enemies. 

“We’ve been making great strides toward robots minds, but robot bodies are still primitive,” said Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the group behind the study. “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 muscle makes use of a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol distributed throughout in micro-bubbles. The result is a material that has strong elastic properties, is easy to make and is made of environmentally safe materials. Once it has been 3D printed, the muscle is actuated with the use of a low-power (8V) input, via a thin wire.

Without a reliance on pneumatic or hydraulic inflation to work the artificial muscle, the new tissue can be made in various sizes, grafted to a robot’s skeleton so that the machine can move independently.

“Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today,” said Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral researcher in Columbia’s Creative Machines lab. “It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”

So far the researchers have been controlling the muscle remotely using computers. In the long-term, however, the researchers plan to involve artificial intelligence so a robot can move its own limbs.  

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