Popeye's muscles

Artificial hand able to respond sensitively thanks to muscles made from smart metal wires. Credit: Filomena Simone et al. Saarlandes University

Reading this news from the University of Saarland reminded me of Popeye's muscles, made stronger by a spinach-rich diet (supposedly transferring iron from the spinach to his muscles...).

Indeed, researchers at Saarland University have managed to create a sort of artificial muscle using metal wires that by remembering their shape can return to it after being stretched, what is known as "shape memory wire". The muscles are made by very thin metal wires made of a nickel-titanium alloy.

They have been showing these muscles embedding them in an artificial hand. The hand is a very complicated "device" with lots of possible movements in a relatively small space. Replicating all these movements in an artificial hand has proved tough. Using motors requires space and you need plenty of motors to create the breath of movements of a real hand, even though some very good approximation are now feasible, as shown in the video clip by Shadow Robot Company that created a system with 19 degrees of freedom (a human hand has 24 degrees of freedom).

By embedding "smart" wires in a plastic hands with all the joints of a human hand they have been able to emulate the movements of a real hand (up to a certain extent) in a much simpler (and cheaper) way than using motors. The wires are very thin and can be aggregated into bundle to provide greater strength.

Additionally this hand isn't noisy, as it is the case with a hand powered by motors (just "hear" the clip).

There is a further bonus! The wires double up as sensors, so a chip can both control their shape and get feedback on the forces (like when the hand is grabbing an egg or a pin). A hand like the one in the clip has over 300 sensors embedded, and that increases its cost.

A very interesting application of smart materials. I am even more convinced that the next decade will be dominated by smart materials and I think that when we talk about Industry 4.0, as we do at the EIT ICT Labs, we should keep smart materials evolution in mind.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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