Low-Cost Soft Robot Muscles Can Lift 200 Times Their Weight and Self Heal

Apparently we are not satisfied with artificial intelligence bots that can mimic or duplicate human behavior. The natural next step is to give the bots a body to try out. Rather than the herky-jerky motions of those robots of old, new technology is being developed that will not only make the actions of a physical robot more human-like, but will also be able to self-heal.

Soft robotics is a technology being developed that instead of creating robots that take a mechanical perspective of design seeks to imitate biological systems (such as muscles) to give the robot a greater degree of adaptability. For example, your heart can be seen as a mechanical system that is powered by electricity to circulate the blood throughout your body. Replacing your heart with a “hard” mechanical device is a recently developed technology that is undergoing testing and uses pistons contained in a plastic housing to mimic the heart rhythm and create the flow of blood through the body. However, with this new soft robotics technology it is possible that the housing will no longer be necessary and the pistons will be replaced with this soft component technology. (The heart is the most important muscle in your body.)

The technology being developed is called HASEL – Hydraulically Amplified Self-healing ELectrostatic design. According to a press release by Christoph Heplinger, a key scientist working on the project, “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.” In real world terms, the average elephant can carry just under 20,000 pounds. As for the hummingbird, its flying speed is about 60 miles per hours but if you are looking at the speed a muscle can move, the hummingbird’s wings beat an average of 12 times per second. So it depends how you define your speed goal.

The actual concept is simple and does mimic our natural biological processes. An electric current is applied to two sides of a fluid filled bag with electrodes on opposite sides of the bag. The current draws the electrodes together, displacing the liquid and creating the artificial “contraction.” The contraction is what determines the force of the action and the direction of movement.

What makes the HASEL design different is that it has applied the concept in a linear fashion. There are a series of rectangular pouches stacked on top of one another, with each individual pouch being able to contract independently. Running the electrical current through this design allows the series of pouches to function much like an actual human muscle. The greater the electrical current applied, the more the artificial muscle can lift or the faster it can “flex” itself.

The “self-healing” part of the description is actually the ability of the liquid in the insulated pouch the be redistributed if too much electricity is forced through to the electrodes. One of the ongoing problems in development is that a high amount of current is required to maximize the potential of both the strength and speed of the device.

Add to all this the fact that scientists can measure the amount of strain the artificial muscle is under, and adjust it as needed to lift heavier objects without damaging it leads to the conclusion that it is a definite possibility robots can be created that function much like animals.

Of course, animals do not have artificial intelligence chips in their brains that allow them to acquire data, analyze it, and perform a specific action based on the accumulated data. One problem with science and advancing technology is that while we can create these amazing technologies, it is not certain how we should control their application. As with technologies in the past, the mantra is that they have been created to help humans; in this case there is talk about these robots working alongside humans. The question to be answered is how well have we taken control of the created technologies of the past and how dependent are we on them?

The HASEL technology strongly suggests we will need to find out before HASEL-based robots are working in our places of business as co-workers who don’t get tired, require breaks, or even think about a paycheck. This technology clearly has the potential for a robot military application, and because one of the key components, the hydraulic fluid, can be something as simple as canola oil, it is extremely cost effective in its early stages of development. When mass produced, the costs will go even lower.

Many of us have seen Terminator: Rise of the Machines and know that it was a fun movie while giving us something to think about. Just because a human had to reprogram a robot and send it back from the future to save the human race doesn’t mean that is what needs to happen. It’s only a movie.

So there’s nothing to worry about, right?


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