Humanoid robots are a step closer to being lifelike after engineers developed synthetic muscle that can lift a thousand times its own weight, it is claimed.
The artificial muscle can also push, pull, bend and twist.
Experts say they’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots and it’s the closest artificial material equivalent they have to a natural muscle.
The long term plan is for engineers to develop artificial intelligence to learn to control the muscle.
The 3D-printable synthetic soft muscle doesn’t need an external compressor or high voltage equipment as previous models did.
Up until now no material has been capable of functioning as a soft muscle due to an inability to show the desired properties of high stress and strain, according to the engineering team at Columbia University in the United States.
Team leader Professor Hod Lipson said: “We’ve been making great strides toward making robot minds, but robot bodies are still primitive.
“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.”
Inspired by living organisms, Professor Lipson said soft material robotics hold “great promise” for areas where robots need to contact and interact with humans, such as manufacturing and healthcare.
He said that, unlike rigid robots, soft robots can replicate natural motion – grasping and manipulation – to provide medical and other types of assistance, perform delicate tasks, or pick up soft objects.
To create a system with high strain, high stress and low density, study lead author Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral researcher in the Creative Machines lab, used a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol distributed throughout in micro-bubbles.
The solution combined the elastic properties and extreme volume change qualities of other material systems while also being easy to fabricate, low cost, and made of environmentally safe materials.
After being 3D-printed into the desired shape, the artificial muscle was electrically moved using a thin resistive wire and low-power (8V).
It was tested in a range of robotic applications where it apparently showed “significant” expansion-contraction ability, being capable of expansion up to 900 per cent when electrically heated to 80C.
By using computer controls, it is capable of moving, according to Dr Miriyev.
He added: “Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionising the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today.