Revolutionary Synthetic Muscle Brings Us One Step Closer to Lifelike Robots

Researchers at Columbia Engineering have just taken a big step towards making the movie Terminator a reality. They’ve made a breakthrough in the field of soft robotics and have successfully produced a 3D printed synthetic tissue that can act like a human muscle—but better. In a new study called “Soft Material for Soft Actuators” published in Nature Communications, they have outlined the technological advances made.

What are Soft Robotics?

As the name suggests, soft robotics is a facet of robotics that uses flexible materials in its construction. Unlike hard robotics, this type of robot can move in ways similar to living organisms.

How Does This “Muscle” Work?

It’s composed of an eco-friendly silicone rubber with ethanol distributed throughout in microbubbles, and this gives it some amazing capabilities. The muscle is able to carry 1,000 times its own weight and is three times stronger than natural muscle. Additionally, it can change in volume with relatively low heat applied. When heated to 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit), it can expand its size 900%. This allows it to perform an array of range-of-motion tasks.

The research team is hopeful about their findings. “Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today,” postdoctoral researcher and lead author Aslan Miriyev explained. “It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”


What Does This Advancement in Soft Robotics Mean?

Before the Columbia Engineering breakthrough, no material had been able to act like this. In fact, previous muscles were hardly like real muscles at all; they were unable to withstand high actuation stress and strain. Previous muscles also required external compressors as well as other equipment, and they couldn’t be placed in smaller robots. With the soft tissue, it could prove extremely useful to humans and be co-opted toperform natural motions like gripping. In the future, robots could help in the medical field with things like non-invasive surgeries or lifting objects for the handicapped or elderly.

“We’ve been making great strides toward making robots minds, but robot bodies are still primitive,” explained lead scientist Hod Lipson. “This is a big piece of the puzzle and, like biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand ways. We’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots.”

What’s Next for Researchers?

Researchers are moving forward with their development of this soft muscle. They now plan to put conductive materials in the muscle and replace the embedded wire, which will shorten its response time. Eventually, they hope to use artificial intelligence to control the muscle—fulfilling the prophecy of what we’ve read and seen in pop culture for years.

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