New and Powerful Robotic Muscle


Photo by: M. Levin, University of Washington via Flickr


After decades of development, humanoid robots still look less springy with electric motors in their joints and are still jerky in their movements. as compared to human muscles that give better and more precise control of the body.

A new field called soft robotics, however, is promising to make machine movement more "natural" as two papers that were released in Science and Science Robotics describe a new kind of robotic "muscle" which is a series of oil-filled pouches that are activated by electrical impulses. The "muscle" is stronger than human muscle and also gives more contractions per second. 

The new robotic muscle, called a hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic actuator or HASEL, uses electrostatic forces to displace the liquid or to pump fluid to a different part, which is the HASEL actuator squeezing inward on itself. "That's what causes the pressure and the movement and deforms the structure to cause actuation," says Nicholas Kellaris, the mechanical engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, and lead author of the paper. 

There are also other actuators like those composed of compressed air or fluid for movement but are bulky with external reservoirs. The HASEL actuators, on the other hand, use the oil that's already there and are powerful and precise in lifting and gripping with the oil acting as shields and insulators from electrical shorts. 

There is the worry, however, of the oil pouches being punctured and eventually losing power, which is why researchers are also working on self-healing skin. 

With the advent of soft robotic limbs, prosthetic limbs will become softer and sensitive. Robots will then become more human looking and some are optimistic that it will make acceptance of people with these prosthetics easier in the workplace by those wary of robots replacing them instead of being a possible complementary partner.