Researchers take biomimicry approach in creating novel actuators - "Models the human bicep"

09/14/2016 - 04:50

Robotics have been steadily on the rise for decades, but we are now starting to see their capabilities advanced in various spaces of automation. Better hardware and software are leading to novel robots that have been envisioned for years. From a robot that cooks your meals to using magnetic levitation to incredibly dexterous and fluid bots, the advancements have been incredible.

Many robotic systems utilize reliable 12v electric actuators which enable the user to automate functions that they choose. Actuators are an essential component and help form the crucial moving parts of the automated systems. The radical developments in this field over the last several years are increasing the level of efficiency, effectiveness, and precision of these components.

Researchers at Harvard University have taken a biomimicry approach with actuators and designed them after human bicep muscles. Their advancement allows for the actuators to be malleable, soft, and even more resilient than before. This will enable these novel actuators to be used in close proximity and collaboration with humans as they "pose no danger".

Led by distinguished Harvard Professor, George M. Whitesides, the team of engineers developed the actuator to be soft bodied consisting of a hollow honeycomb-like structure. Other soft actuators have been created before, but none function as similarly to muscle with the same type of "response time and efficiency." Given its flexibility capability, it further enhances the level of applications that future robots can be used for.

Past designs have employed the use of pressurized air, whereas the researchers avoided this concept and used vacuum pressure to decrease volume and cause it to buckle. This development of creating contraction over expansion is called VAMPS or vacuum-actuated muscle-inspired pneumatic structures.

"Having VAMPs built of soft elastomers would make it much easier to automate a robot that could be used to help humans in the service industry."
- Dian Yang, Graduate Researcher at Harvard SEAS

It will be very interesting to see how this technology develops further and the robotic systems that stem from it. Will Rosie the robot maid from the Jetsons finally exist? Only time will tell.

Ref: Buckling Pneumatic Linear Actuators Inspired by Muscle. Advanced Materials Technologies (1 June 2016) | DOI: 10.1002/admt.201600055


The mechanical features of biological muscles are difficult to reproduce completely in synthetic systems. A new class of soft pneumatic structures (vacuum-actuated muscle-inspired pneumatic structures) is described that combines actuation by negative pressure (vacuum), with cooperative buckling of beams fabricated in a slab of elastomer, to achieve motion and demonstrate many features that are similar to that of mammalian muscle.