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Artificial muscles set to create robots with super powers

Based on Origami principles, MIT develops simulated actuators that can lift 1,000 times their own weight

A Boston Dynamics Atlas humanoid robot. MIT has created artificial muscles that will enable a robot to lift 1,000 times its own weight. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
A Boston Dynamics Atlas humanoid robot. MIT has created artificial muscles that will enable a robot to lift 1,000 times its own weight. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Inspired by the folding technique of origami, US researchers said they have crafted cheap, artificial muscles for robots that give them the power to lift up to 1,000 times their own weight.

The advance offers a leap forward in the field of soft robotics, which is fast replacing an older generation of robots that were jerky and rigid in their movements, researchers say.

"It's like giving these robots superpowers," said the senior author Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the organisation from which the robotics pioneer Boston Dynamics was spun out of.

The muscles, known as actuators, are built on a framework of metal coils or plastic sheets, and each muscle costs around US$1 to make, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.

Their origami inspiration derives from a zig-zag structure that some of the muscles employ, allowing them to contract and expand as commanded, using vacuum-powered air or water pressure, according to AFP.

"The skeleton can be a spring, an origami-like folded structure, or any solid structure with hinged or elastic voids," said the report.

Possible uses include expandable space habitats on Mars, miniature surgical devices, wearable robotic exoskeletons, deep-sea exploration devices or even transformable architecture.

"Artificial muscle-like actuators are one of the most important grand challenges in all of engineering," said the co-author Rob Wood, a professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University.

"Now that we have created actuators with properties similar to natural muscle, we can imagine building almost any robot for almost any task."

Researchers built dozens of muscles, using metal springs, packing foam or plastic in a range of shapes and sizes.

They created "muscles that can contract down to 10 per cent of their original size, lift a delicate flower off the ground, and twist into a coil, all simply by sucking the air out of them", said the report.

The artificial muscles "can generate about six times more force per unit area than mammalian skeletal muscle can, and are also incredibly lightweight", it added.

A 2.6 gram muscle can lift an object weighing three kilograms, "which is the equivalent of a mallard duck lifting a car".

According to the co-author Daniel Vogt, a research engineer at the Wyss Institute, the vacuum-based muscles "have a lower risk of rupture, failure, and damage, and they don't expand when they're operating, so you can integrate them into closer-fitting robots on the human body."

The research was funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.


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Elsewhere, the robotics revolution is somewhat more mundane. Eugene Izhikevich, the founder and chief executive of Brain Corp, was in Tokyo last week to speak at SoftBank’s annual robot conference about one of his creations - a 400kg autonomous floor cleaner called EMMA.

Equipped with Brain’s software and an array of sensors typically found in a self-driving car, it mops floors on its own even when customers are around, according to Bloomberg.

“Anything you see that has wheels, we can turn into a robot,” says Mr Izhikevich, a neuroscientist. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have 100 different robots three, five years from now?”

Brain’s robots already clean floors at Walmart, Costco, Lowe’s and multiple airports in the US, and sales will begin in Japan next summer. Mr Izhikevich says his order book is full until February.

Attendees look at an International Cleaning Equipment (ICE) RS26 rider auto scrubber, powered by Brain Corp.'s Brain OS, during a demonstration at the SoftBank Robot World 2017 in Tokyo, Japan, on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. SoftBank Chief Executive Officer Masayoshi Son has put money into robots, artificial intelligence, microchips and satellites, sketching a vision of the future where a trillion devices are connected to the internet and technology is integrated into humans. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
Brain Corp. autonomous cleaning robot EMMA. Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

The sensor package to convert a manual cleaner into a robot includes a laser range finder; Brain charges US$500 a month for the service. That’s still a bargain considering Walmart spends on average $1,500 a month to mop a single store.

Floor cleaning is just the start; the company sees robots in the near future helping with security patrols and personal mobility. SoftBank’s founder Masayoshi Son is on board with that vision and in July led a $114 million investment round in Brain via his $93 billion Vision Fund. Qualcomm is also a backer.

“If I’m the one who has to build those robots, it will take me 50 years," said Mr Izhikevich. "Instead, I can partner with 50 and 100 companies who are already building manual equipment and provide them the brains.”

Updated: November 29, 2017 12:18 PM