stories on progressBreakthrough for life-like soft robotics

This synthetic muscle is 3D printable + lifts 1000 times its own weight.
November 1, 2021

image | above

This mushy + agile mechanical squid is the future of robotics — a completely soft machine that will flex + grip just like biological muscle.

With their fine motor skills, soft robots can handle complex tasks that require mobility, delicacy, precision, and safety. Synthetic muscle protoypes in the lab today endow these robots with extreme weight-lifting strength.

graphic: Queen Mary Univ. of London

Inside this post.

~ story
~ featurette

— story —

Researchers at Columbia Univ. built a 3D printable, synthetic soft muscle that can mimic nature’s biology — lifting 1000 times its own weight. The artificial muscle is 3 times stronger than natural muscle — and can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weighty objects. The breakthrough enables a new generation of completely soft robots.

Today’s mechanisms that move robotics — called actuators — are bulky pneumatic (gas pressure) or hydraulic (fluid pressure) inflation systems made of elastomer skins — that expand when air or liquid is pushed into them. But those require external compressors + pressure regulating equipment.

The team is led by award-winning roboticist Hod Lipson PhD — from the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia Univ.

— quote —

We’ve had great strides in making robot software — but robot bodies are still primitive. This is a big piece of the puzzle. Just like biology, the new actuator can be shaped + re-shaped thousands of ways. We’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making life-like robots.

Hod Lipson PhD

bio: mechanical engineer
bio: teacher | Columbia Univ.
web: profile ~ home

image | above

In the experiment above, the synthetic soft muscle expands + deflates — just like a real biological muscle. This prototype is a breakthrough for building soft robots.

graphic: Columbia Univ.

Replicating natural motion.

Inspired by living organisms, robotics made of soft materials will be essential in fields where robots must interact physically with people — such as: manufacturing, emergency services, customer assistance, in-home aid, and health care. Unlike rigid robots, soft robots can replicate natural motion — grasping + manipulation — to provide medical help, perform delicate tasks, or pick-up soft objects.

The soft muscle recipe.

Researchers used a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol (alcohol) distributed throughout in micro-bubbles. This design combines elastic properties + extreme volume change abilities — and it’s easy to fabricate, low cost, and made of environmentally safe materials.

The soft, composite material is 3D printed into its final shape. When it’s heated, the ethanol in the material boils and the pressure inside those micro-bubbles grows — forcing the elastic silicone elastomer matrix to also expand.

The researchers next plan to accelerate the muscle’s response time + increase its shelf life. They also plan to use artificial intelligence software that will learn to control the muscle — as a final milestone in replicating natural human motion.

The synthetic muscle was tested in a variety of robotic applications. Because it’s elastic, it was able to expand + contract up to 900%. The new material can withstand strain 15 times larger than biological muscle. The team said these abilities will enable new kinds of soft robots.


image | above

This soft robot example…

Science details for building soft actuators.

Inspired by natural muscle, a key challenge in soft robotics is to develop:

  • self-contained + electrically driven soft actuators
  • that can withstand high strain
  • made of soft + robust composite material

Existing robotics actuators have limits:

  • they require high voltage to trigger electro-active polymers
  • they’re restricted by the low strain of shape memory alloys
  • they need external compressors + pressure regulating components for hydraulic + pneumatic actuators

— featurette —

featurette title: Synthetic muscle for soft life-like robotics
group: by Columbia Univ.

— websites —

group: the Creative Machines Lab
tag line: Welcome to a world of curious + creative machines.
web: home

We build robots that do what you’d least expect robots to do — self -replicate, self-reflect, ask questions, and be creative. We develop machines that can design + make other machines automatically. Our work is inspired: we look for new engineering concepts + insights from living biology.


presented by

group: Columbia Univ.
motto: In your light we see the light.
web: home ~ channel

— notes —

3D = 3-dimensional
AI = artificial intelligence

— post file —

post title: Breakthrough for life-like soft robotics
deck: This synthetic muscle is 3D printable + lifts 1000 times its own weight.

the Kurzweil library
tab: stories on progress

— end of file —