Nylon Fibre Artificial Muscles — Powered by Lasers!

If only we had affordable artificial muscles, we might see rapid advances in prosthetic limbs, robots, exo-skeletons, implants, and more. With cost being one of the major barriers — in addition to replicating the marvel of our musculature that many of us take for granted — a workable solution seems a way off. A team of researchers at MIT present a potential answer to these problems by showing nylon fibres can be used as synthetic muscles.

Some polymer fibre materials have the curious property of increasing in  diameter while decreasing in length when heated. Taking advantage of this, the team at MIT were able to sculpt nylon fibre and — using a number of heat sources, namely lasers — could direct it to bend in a specific direction. More complex movement requires an array of heat sources which isn’t practical — yet — but seeing a nylon fibre dance tickles the imagination.

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Zizzy The Personal Robot Uses 3D Printed Artificial Muscles Instead of Hobby Servos

Zizzy is a personal robot designed to help those with limited mobility. Rather than being assisted by a nightmare creature, Zizzy would offer a more appealing and friendly option.

The coolest part about Zizzy is the 3D printable pneumatic artificial muscles. Project creator, [Michael Roybal] said it took over a year of development to arrive at the design.

The muscles are hollow bellows printed out of Ninjaflex with carefully calibrated settings. A lot of work must have gone into the design to make sure that they were printable. After printing the muscles are painted with a mixture of fabric glue and MEK solvent. If all is done correctly the bellows should be able to hold 20 PSI without any problem.

This results in a robot with very smooth and precise movement. It has none of the gear noise and can also give when it collides with a user, a feature typically found only in very expensive motor systems. If [Michael] can find a quiet compressor system the robot will be nearly silent.

Tissue-Engineered Soft Robot Swims Like a Stingray

We’re about to enter a new age in robotics. Forget the servos, the microcontrollers, the H-bridges and the steppers. Start thinking in terms of optogenetically engineered myocytes, microfabricated gold endoskeletons, and hydrodynamically optimized elastomeric skins, because all of these have now come together in a tissue-engineered swimming robotic stingray that pushes the boundary between machine and life.

In a paper in Science, [Kevin Kit Parker] and his team at the fantastically named Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering describe the achievement. It turns out that the batoid fishes like skates and rays have a pretty good handle on how to propel themselves in water with minimal musculoskeletal and neurological requirements, and so they’re great model organisms for a tissue engineered robot.

The body is a laminate of silicone rubber and a collection of 200,000 rat heart muscle cells. The cardiomyocytes provide the contractile force, and the pattern in which they are applied to the 1/2″ (1.25cm) body allows for the familiar undulating motion of a stingray’s wings. A gold endoskeleton with enough stiffness to act as a spring is used to counter the contraction of the muscle fibers and reset the system for another wave. Very clever stuff, but perhaps the coolest bit is that the muscle cells are genetically engineered to be photosensitive, making the robofish controllable with pulses of light. Check out the video below to see the robot swimming through an obstacle course.

This is obviously far from a finished product, but the possibilities are limitless with this level of engineering, especially with a system that draws energy from its environment like this one does. Just think about what could be accomplished if a microcontroller could be included in that gold skeleton.

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Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Artificial Muscles and Supercapacitors

For [Lloyd T Cannon III]’s entry to the Hackaday Prize, he’s doing nothing less than changing the way everything moves. For the last 100 years, internal combustion engines have powered planes, trains, and automobiles, and only recently have people started looking at batteries and electric motors. With his supercapacitors and artificial muscles, [Lloyd] is a few decades ahead of everyone else.

There are two parts to [Lloyd]’s project, the first being the energy storage device. He’s building a Lithium Sulfur Silicon hybrid battery. Li-S-Si batteries have the promise to deliver up to 2000 Watt hours per kilogram of battery. For comparison, even advanced Lithium batteries top out around 2-300 Wh/kg. That’s nearly an order of magnitude difference, and while it’s a far way off from fossil fuels, it would vastly increase the range of electric vehicles and make many more technologies possible.

The other part of [Lloyd]’s project is artificial muscles. Engines aren’t terribly efficient, and electric motors are only good if you want to spin things. For robotics, muscles are needed, and [Lloyd] is building them out of fishing line. These muscles contract because of the resistive heating of a carbon fiber filament embedded in the muscle. It’s been done before, but this is the first project we’ve seen that replicates the technique in a garage lab.

Both parts of [Lloyd]’s project are worthy of a Hackaday Prize entry alone, but putting them together as one project more than meets the goal: to build something that matters.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

3D Printed Kinetic Art

Artificial muscles and soft robotics don’t get the respect they deserve, but [mikey77] is doing some very interesting work with artificial muscles that can be made on just about any 3D printer.

Like other artificial muscles and soft robotic actuators we’ve seen – like this walking sea slug and this eerie tentacle – [mikey77]’s muscles are powered by air. Instead of the usual casting method, he’s printing these muscles from Ninjaflex, a flexible plastic that is compatible with most 3D printers.

As they come off the printer, these 3D printed pneumatic muscles leak, and that means [mikey77] has to seal them. For that, he created a sealant out of Loctite fabric glue thinned with MEK. The addition of MEK dissolves the outer layer of Ninjaflex, allowing the glue to bond very, very well to the printed muscle.

So far, [mikey77] has created a pneumatic flower that blooms when air is added. He’s also created a muscle that can lift more than four pounds of weight with the help of a 3D printed skeleton. It’s a great way to experiment with flexible robots and pneumatic muscles, and we can’t wait to see what weird creatures can be created with these actuators.

Thanks [Lloyd] for sending this one in.

Artificial Muscles Use Carbon Nanotube Sheets

Light as air, stronger than steel and more flexible than rubber. Sound like something from the next installment of the Iron Man series? [Tony Stark] would certainly take notice of this fascinating technology. Fortunately for us, it does not come from the studios of Hollywood, but instead the halls of the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas.

Professor [Ray Baughman] and his team of scientists at the NanoTech Institute have developed a type of artificial muscle through a process of making aerogel sheets by growing carbon nanotubes in a forest like structure. Think of a vertical bamboo forest, with each bamboo stem representing a single carbon nanotube. Now imagine that the individual bamboo stems were connected together by much smaller horizontal threads. So that if you dislodge the bamboo and began to pull, the threads would pull the others, and you would get this sheet-like structure.

These aerogel sheets of carbon nantubes have some truly science fiction like properties. They can operate from 1,600 degrees centigrade to near absolute zero. If you inject a charge, each nanotube will be repulsed from one another, expanding some 220% of the sheet’s original size. Your muscles do this at roughly 20 – 40%. Stick around after the break for a video demonstration of these carbon nanotube aerogel sheets being made and demonstrated.

Thanks to [Steven] for the tip!

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Researchers Create Synthetic Muscle 100 Times Stronger Than the Real Thing

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A team of researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have come up with an ingenious way to make a low-cost, high strength, artificial muscle. Their secret? Fishing line. The study was just published today in the journal Science, and the best part is they describe how to recreate it at home.

To create it, the researchers take regular fishing line (polyethylene or nylon string) and twist it under tension until it curls up into a tightly formed spring. It can then be temperature treated to lock in this position.

When heated again, the plastic tries to untwist — the peculiar thing is, this causes the entire coil to compress — think of it as Chinese finger-trap. Polyethylene and nylon molecules also contract lengthwise when heated. It can contract up to about 49%, with as much pulling power as 100 times its equivalent human muscle in weight. This equates to about 5.3 kilowatts of mechanical work per kilogram of muscle weight — similar to the output of a jet engine.

Stick around to see the video of how to make it — we’re excited to see what you guys think up for project applications!

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