New Cheap Self-Healing Robotic Muscles Could Make Superhuman Androids Ubiquitous

Friday, 05 January 2018 - 11:08AM
Technology
Robotics
Friday, 05 January 2018 - 11:08AM
New Cheap Self-Healing Robotic Muscles Could Make Superhuman Androids Ubiquitous
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Image credit: YouTube
"Soft robots" are weird—most of them look like wiggly plastic bags or rubbery centipedes rather than animatronic teddy bears, and it's always a bit disturbing when you see them moving around, almost like they're a severed body part that has a mind of its own.

For example, here's a piece of rubber with the ability to crawl under doorframes:



Now scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have engineered soft robotic muscles that work on similar principles as these simple little critters (passing an electrical charge through a relatively soft, flexible medium), but with a lot more kick—according to one of the lead researchers, Prof. Christopher Keplinger, these new soft muscles "can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant."

Here's how it works in a nutshell: "The team filled elastic pouches with vegetable oil and hydrogel electrodes. When electricity is applied, the oil around the electrodes spasms. This pulls on the electrodes, making the whole artificial muscle contract and release in milliseconds.

These movements can beat the speed of human muscle reactions." In addition to being able to lift a gallon of water several times per second and survive more than a million contraction cycles, these robotic muscles can heal themselves when faced with electrical damage through the use of a liquid insulating layer. Hence, they're called HASELs, short for "Hydraulically-amplified Self-healing Electrostatic" actuators (an actuator is "a mechanical device for moving or controlling something").

One of the potential uses for HASELs is to give robots more natural, human-like movement—not to mention super-strength, flexibility, and speed. Because the team based the design of their devices on human muscles, the application to human-like robots is a natural step. In addition, certain types of HASELs, such as the Peano-HASEL actuator, can be produced for less than a dollar, making manufacturing extremely easy.

There is, however, one major obstacle stopping these robotic muscles from becoming the catalyst for hydraulic, superhuman T-800s—power. Each of these devices needs high-voltage electricity in order to work, and that means higher costs.

The team is already investigating ways to make these actuators run on a fifth of their current voltage, however, meaning that our last hope to deal with the robot apocalypse is Elon Musk, whose crazy warnings about "robots going down the street.
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