Artificial muscles for robots

In this image, VAMPs are shown actuated and cut open in cross section. The honeycomb cross section shows the inner chambers that collapse when vacuum is applied. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Creating robots that are safe to mingle with is still a challenge. As long as they are made of steel, or hard material, there is the chance that we clash with one of their movement harming ourselves. This does not happen when we bump into another human being (in normal situation, of course) because we, and our occasional "obstacle" are made of soft material. 

The problem with constructing a robot using soft materials, like rubber, is that they won't be functional any longer. You need something rigid to activate movements and make the robot useful. Alas, you need to invent artificial muscles.

Now, a team of researchers at Harvard have found a way to create a soft material that can be used as artificial muscles for robots. They created an actuator made of soft elastomer rubber organised like a honeycomb and are using vacuum to make it contract.

It is a VAMP: Vacuum Actuated, Muscle inspired Pneumatic structure.

The vacuum causes the internal honeycomb structure to collapse and that results in the shrinking of the VAMP. By changing the shape and disposition of the honeycomb one can create deformation resulting in twisting, not just in a linear shrinking.

Using VAMP to actuate robots should make them safer, as well as lighter and nimbler. Researchers see application of this technology in robots that have to mingle with people, like helping elderly, serving food... The VAMP does not have the strength required by most industrial applications, just like our muscles.  If you need to fasten a bolt, you better get a wrench!
Another example of scientists getting inspired by Nature.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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