Origami Inspired Muscle Design Invented to Aid Robotics

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One of the most pressing issues in AI and robotics is how to replicate the human muscle system. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have developed an assortment of origami-inspired artificial muscles that can increase up to a million times their own weight — and yet be dexterous enough to get traction and pick up a delicate flower.

The technology, described from the the National Academy of Sciences, offers a new way to give soft robots power, which could be used anywhere from inside our bodies to outer space.

Robots should be made out of soft, pliant parts to take care of hard-to-reach places, navigate unpredictable environments and safely interact with individuals, so scientists have increasingly tried to produce robots with soft pieces.

In the past, those bits were relegated to a robot’s outsides, essentially as padding. Yet – researchers are increasingly building robots whose other critical parts are soft — recently going so far as to create an octopus-inspired robot.

But there’s been one big drawback to soft-bodied robots: Unlike robots made from hard materials, they’re not exactly power lifters.

Rus And her colleagues solved this dilemma by drawing upon origami methods, which have lately proved useful for creating many types of robots. Origami methods have the capacity to generate many intricate designs at low cost because they use small quantities of material and surprisingly simple processes.

With this work, the scientists utilized origami techniques to create muscle-like structures which may give a limb flexibility but still allow it to proceed without having any hard pieces.

They made folded structures specifically meant to shorten, curl, twist or bend into particular shapes when they were compressed. The investigators sealed those long folded constructions in a bag of polymer “epidermis” and stuffed them with air or another fluid. When a vacuum sucked out the fluid, the origami arrangement thrown collectively, contorting into the shape depending on its folding patterns.

The researchers found that some origami muscles could squeeze down to a tenth of the original size, or lift up to a thousand times their own weight. They could produce roughly six times as much pressure per unit of area since mammalian muscle.

Such robotic limbs might be used at miniature scales, possibly to perform repair work inside of our bodies. They could empower wearable exoskeletons for lifting heavy objects, or be routed to probe deep-sea environments. They might even do the most deceptively mundane tasks — such as lifting a heavy carton of milk or a bunch of grapes without squashing them. A more human-scale proof of concept could be next, the scientist explained.