Harvard's Wyss Institute teamed up with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to build the "soft robots", whose soft components allow them to move more freely and flexibly than their more rigid counterparts.
The scientists, leaders in the fast-expanding field of soft robotics, were pursuing one of the grand challenges in engineering: the development of so-called actuators, or artificial muscles, to endow machines with strength.
They also experimented with different skeleton shapes to create muscles that can contract down to 10% of their original size, twist into a coil and lift a delicate flower without damaging it. These small pieces of origami - some simple like accordions, some more complex - were placed into a sealed plastic bag that served as a skin.
"We were very surprised by how strong the muscles were", says MIT researcher Daniela Rus while highlighting the capabilities of these mucles. However, a group of scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to make muscles that are both flexible and strong.
When a vacuum is applied to the inside of the bag, it moves the muscle by causing the skin to collapse onto the skeleton creating tension and movement in the muscle.
One of the team's 2.6-gram muscles, for instance, can lift a 3-kilogram item.
The simplicity and flexibility mean that the artificial muscles can be created in sizes ranging from millimeters to meters, which would come in handy for one application that is already being eyed for the origami technology. These incredibly lightweight muscles could be constructed within ten minutes using materials costing less than one dollar.
"Now that we have created actuators with properties similar to natural muscle, we can imagine building nearly any robot for nearly any task", said Rob Wood Ph.D, Founding Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute.
For perspective, soft robots lack the rigidity and precise accuracy of traditional "hard" robotics, while also being as susceptible to system leaks as fluid power actuators but without their speed and tolerance for high internal pressures. The new muscles are not as easily controlled or reprogrammable as other robot types, and the direction they ca move in would be based on their inner structure. But perhaps most excitingly, they even made some out of PVA, a water-soluble polymer.
Reports suggest that possible uses include expandable space habitats on Mars, miniature surgical devices, robotic exoskeletons and deep-sea exploration devices.
"The possibilities really are limitless", Rus said. "But the very next thing I would like to build with these muscles is an elephant robot with a trunk that can manipulate the world in ways that are as flexible and powerful as you see in real elephants", Rus said. "The next step is to take this system and develop it into a fully functional robot".