Will robots of the future be super strong? It sure appears that way, now that researchers with MIT and Harvard have developed rigid, origami skeletons for robots. The technology makes it possible for the bots to life 1,000 times their own weight!
In a new paper, published today in the journal PNAS, researchers describe the newly-developed artificial muscle that could be used to construct soft robots. As The Verge reports, each “muscle” consists of a sealed bag that is filled with air or fluid. Because it contains a folding origami structure, it functions similarly to a skeleton.
When the pressure inside the bag is reduced (using an electrical pump), the whole structure collapses and contracts — just like a muscle in your arm or leg. This is a game-changer in the field of robotics.
Explained Professor Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and the lead author of the paper, “Soft robots have so much potential, but up until now, one of the limitations has been payloads. [They’re] very safe, very gentle, but not good for lifting heavy objects. This new approach allows us to make strong and soft robots.”
The muscles can be used in a number of ways. In addition to being used in warehouse and logistics operations, they can be used to safely handle readable and delicate objects, such as fruit. The muscles could also be used to pick up objects with unusual shapes, making household robots more efficient.
With the newly-invented muscle, soft robots can reach out and grab a “deformed” object. Their gripper will then match the shape and “wrap around the object, no matter what shape it is,” said Rus. The Verge reports: “The new origami skeleton would make such soft grabbers more useful, by allowing them to handle weightier objects.”
Of course, every invention has its drawbacks. To begin with, the soft muscle cannot be controlled or programmed like a robot is. “You compose distinct movement patterns inside the skeleton that define how the system as a whole moves,” said Rus. At present, the invention is very particular. It has to be folded in just the right ways.
Fortunately, this isn’t as difficult as it might have been in the past. Today, we can use algorithms to find origami patterns that fold in near-infinite ways. As they are discovered, the soft muscles will be able to carry out complicated motions, like twisting.
An additional benefit is that the muscle doesn’t need an electronic control system. Rather, it just needs something to turn it on and off. The muscles can also be built from cheap, lightweight materials. As a result, they can be quickly fabricated and easily repaired.
Rus remains fascinated by the simplicity of the muscles, and how they can be redesigned to create new forms of lifting, pulling and pushing machines. She said, “I started working with origami many years ago because I was interested in making modular robots that have programmable properties; I wanted to create programmable matter.”
Since then, she’s used origami to program movement into a variety of creations. “Origami has this beautiful universality,” said Rus. The team is now working on building a soft robot elephant trunk that is “as flexible and powerful” as a real elephant’s. Reportedly, it is also “as big as a human person.”
Who knows — in the future, the muscles may be used to build inexpensive exoskeletons which could be strapped to our bodies to increase our own strength. The possibilities are close to limitless, which is why this invention is so intriguing.
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Source: The Verge