Science 2 min read

Soft Robot Powered by Muscle-like Actuators

The EPFL's Reconfigurable Robotics Lab has designed and developed actuators that mimic human muscle and give the soft robot fluidity and adaptability.

OlVic | Shutterstock.com

OlVic | Shutterstock.com

Most people associate robots with solid, shining metal machines that barely resemble humans. Take the dance move, the “Robot,” for example, in which a person tries to make their movements more rigid and less human. If you’ve seen a Boston Dynamics robot walking, you can attest that it lacks grace and agility. They are anything but flexible. Yet, an emerging soft robotics trend may change all of that. 

“According to Gunjan Agarwal, the soft robot they have created could aid rehabilitation for patients with spinal injuries and muscle disorders.”

What is a Soft Robot?

A soft robot, internally, is built like any other robot. However, its body is fitted with frames and actuators made from malleable materials such as silicon and rubber. Unlike conventional robotics, the inspiration for the soft robot is more focused on the natural fluidity of the living organism. Their main advantage over conventional moving robots is adaptability, managing hostile and uneven terrain easily.

There is no doubt that soft robots will play a crucial role in jobs automation. While you might think it would be the last robotics technology to influence the job market, soft robotics is innovating at a rapid pace.

Soft Robot with Muscle-like Flexibility

Researchers, led by Gunjan Agarwal, at EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL), are developing a soft robot with components that mimic human muscles.

The team has created muscle-like actuators that enable fluid movements in soft robotics. The actuator is constructed using silicon and rubber, which are bendable yet durable materials. The robot’s movements are controlled by a particular type of “soft balloon” which is triggered by changes in pressure.

Potential Applications

According to Gunjan Agarwal, the soft robot they have created could aid rehabilitation for patients with spinal injuries and muscle disorders. These exacting machines could be tasked with handling expensive, fragile items, and even home care. At the highest level, these machines could mimic systems found in nature and potentially enhance biodiversity. Furthermore, Agarwal thinks that their robots could be adapted for search and rescue missions.

Luckily, these actuators are made from ordinary materials and the soft robot concept could thus be scaled quickly.

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