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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
Image Credit: Keplinger Research Group/University of Colorado Continue reading
Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
Image Credit: Boston Dynamics / YouTube Continue reading
How many cyborgs did you see during your morning commute today? I would guess at least five. Did they make you nervous? Probably not; you likely didn’t even realize they were there.
In a presentation titled “Biohacking and the Connected Body” at Singularity University Global Summit, Hannes Sjoblad informed the audience that we’re already living in the age of cyborgs. Sjoblad is co-founder of the Sweden-based biohacker network Bionyfiken, a chartered non-profit that unites DIY-biologists, hackers, makers, body modification artists and health and performance devotees to explore human-machine integration.
Sjoblad said the cyborgs we see today don’t look like Hollywood prototypes; they’re regular people who have integrated technology into their bodies to improve or monitor some aspect of their health. Sjoblad defined biohacking as applying hacker ethic to biological systems. Some biohackers experiment with their biology with the goal of taking the human body’s experience beyond what nature intended.
Smart insulin monitoring systems, pacemakers, bionic eyes, and Cochlear implants are all examples of biohacking, according to Sjoblad. He told the audience, “We live in a time where, thanks to technology, we can make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk.” He is convinced that while biohacking could conceivably end up having Brave New World-like dystopian consequences, it can also be leveraged to improve and enhance our quality of life in multiple ways.
The field where biohacking can make the most positive impact is health. In addition to pacemakers and insulin monitors, several new technologies are being developed with the goal of improving our health and simplifying access to information about our bodies.
Ingestibles are a type of smart pill that use wireless technology to monitor internal reactions to medications, helping doctors determine optimum dosage levels and tailor treatments to different people. Your body doesn’t absorb or process medication exactly as your neighbor’s does, so shouldn’t you each have a treatment that works best with your unique system? Colonoscopies and endoscopies could one day be replaced by miniature pill-shaped video cameras that would collect and transmit images as they travel through the digestive tract.
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Security is another area where biohacking could be beneficial. One example Sjoblad gave was personalization of weapons: an invader in your house couldn’t fire your gun because it will have been matched to your fingerprint or synced with your body so that it only responds to you.
Biohacking can also simplify everyday tasks. In an impressive example of walking the walk rather than just talking the talk, Sjoblad had an NFC chip implanted in his hand. The chip contains data from everything he used to have to carry around in his pockets: credit and bank card information, key cards to enter his office building and gym, business cards, and frequent shopper loyalty cards. When he’s in line for a morning coffee or rushing to get to the office on time, he doesn’t have to root around in his pockets or bag to find the right card or key; he just waves his hand in front of a sensor and he’s good to go.
Evolved from radio frequency identification (RFID)—an old and widely distributed technology—NFC chips are activated by another chip, and small amounts of data can be transferred back and forth. No wireless connection is necessary. Sjoblad sees his NFC implant as a personal key to the Internet of Things, a simple way for him to talk to the smart, connected devices around him.
Sjoblad isn’t the only person who feels a need for connection.
When British science writer Frank Swain realized he was going to go deaf, he decided to hack his hearing to be able to hear Wi-Fi. Swain developed software that tunes into wireless communication fields and uses an inbuilt Wi-Fi sensor to pick up router name, encryption modes and distance from the device. This data is translated into an audio stream where distant signals click or pop, and strong signals sound their network ID in a looped melody. Swain hears it all through an upgraded hearing aid.
Global datastreams can also become sensory experiences. Spanish artist Moon Ribas developed and implanted a chip in her elbow that is connected to the global monitoring system for seismographic sensors; each time there’s an earthquake, she feels it through vibrations in her arm.
You can feel connected to our planet, too: North Sense makes a “standalone artificial sensory organ” that connects to your body and vibrates whenever you’re facing north. It’s a built-in compass; you’ll never get lost again.
Biohacking applications are likely to proliferate in the coming years, some of them more useful than others. But there are serious ethical questions that can’t be ignored during development and use of this technology. To what extent is it wise to tamper with nature, and who gets to decide?
Most of us are probably ok with waiting in line an extra 10 minutes or occasionally having to pull up a maps app on our phone if it means we don’t need to implant computer chips into our forearms. If it’s frightening to think of criminals stealing our wallets, imagine them cutting a chunk of our skin out to have instant access to and control over our personal data. The physical invasiveness and potential for something to go wrong seems to far outweigh the benefits the average person could derive from this technology.
But that may not always be the case. It’s worth noting the miniaturization of technology continues at a quick rate, and the smaller things get, the less invasive (and hopefully more useful) they’ll be. Even today, there are people already sensibly benefiting from biohacking. If you look closely enough, you’ll spot at least a couple cyborgs on your commute tomorrow morning.
Image Credit:Movement Control Laboratory/University of Washington – Deep Dream Generator Continue reading