Powerful, soft robot muscles bring androids closer

Bishop androidHumanoid autonomous robots are currently science fiction. However, scientists have come up with an artificial muscle that responds like natural muscle. It’s also squidgy which makes the likihood that our robot overlords might soon appear human.

Bringing a new meaning to software, these artificial muscles could enable humanoid robots to move and act with more human-like grace. They could even let these androids mimic human facial expressions too.

In order to make robots or androids become part of our day-to-day life, many think that they will need to appear more human. Personally, I think that this will have the opposite effect. Saying that, I was raised on the likes of Terminator and Blade Runner; you know, films where the more human-looking robots were rather loose-cannons.

blade runner rutger hauerOn the flip-side, however, if we have androids that can move like people, then there will be no need to customise current workspaces in order to accomodate them.

Furthermore, having squigy robots working alongside you will be less hazardous than hulking great metallic machines. Until they decide to rebel, but that’s for another article.

Droids not ‘roids

A team led by Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral researcher in Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab, has developed a synthetic muscle that pushes, pulls, or twists in response to heat.

Their experiments suggest that the artificial muscle is capable of lifting 1,000 times its own weight. Additionally, it can expand 15 times more than natural muscle and is also three times stronger. So, not only handy for androids but, possibly cyborgs?


The 3-D printed artificial muscle could be used to augment movement for people with disabilities. Since it’s made from biocompatible, relatively inexpensive materials, the artificial muscle could be surgically embedded or used as an exoskeleton prosthesis.

You see, no external compressor or high voltage equipment is required, as in previous artificial muscles.
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Soft actuator technologies typically use pneumatic or hydraulic inflation to expand elastomer skin with air or liquid. The compressors and such prevents the miniaturisation needed to install in human-like droids.

To get around that bulky actuator equipment, the scientists designed a silicone rubber matrix. This expands or contracts as ethanol enters or exits micro-bubbles embedded inside the material.

The artificial muscle is actuated with a low-power 8V resistive wire. When heated to 80°C, the artificial muscle could expand to up to 900% its initial size, allowing it to perform motion.


Miriyev states:

Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today. It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle.”

Next steps

The team will now move to improve their design.

They are currently looking in to replacing the embedded wire with conductive materials, accelerating the response time, and increasing the artificial muscle’s shelf life.

Ultimately, machine learning algorithms will take control of the muscle’s contractive motion in order to replicate natural movement as closely as possible.

Exciting and scary times ahead!