Imagine an electrically-powered device as thin as paper, as powerful as human muscle, and capable of lifting 1,000 times its own weight. Researchers from the University of Bristol have done precisely that, creating an artificial ’muscle’ that could boost the power of anything from microrobots to space structures.
The team of engineers from Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Engineering Mathematics were inspired to create the artificial muscle technology by the ancient art of origami.
Their invention uses electrostatic forces, which “zip” structures together like a zipper on a coat. These structures can be made from any combination of insulating and conducting materials, such as metal and plastic and even office paper and pencil.
“With electro-origami, we can replace electromagnetic motors with light, scalable, silent alternatives,” said Dr Majid Taghavi, one of the inventors of the technology. “Because electrostatic devices do not require high currents, they produce much less heat and can be much more efficient than electric motors.”
The research, published in Science Robotics , comes from the team who previously found fame with “The Right Trousers” project, in which they developed smart robotic trousers to improve the mobility of older adults and people with disabilities.
“We first discovered the electro-origami concept more than two years ago, whilst developing artificial muscles for assistive robotic clothing, however it has wide applications across engineering and robotics,” said, Dr Tim Helps, who co-authored the study alongside Dr Taghavi and Professor Jonathan Rossiter at the University’s SoftLab.
One application of the technology has been named an “electro-ribbon actuator” and comprises a pair of bow-shaped conductive ribbons that zip together to produce force or lift objects. One such device starts out 180 mm long but is less than 1 mm thick when contracted.
The team also demonstrated more complex devices such as robotic grippers, crawling robots, origami springs and even a flapping origami crane.
Prof Rossiter sees many applications for this technology, “we believe electro-origami could be used in wearable devices that give you a boost in power and keep you physically independent, in space applications to produce solar-panels which fold away like tree leaves inside buds, and even in robotic art where tactile surfaces and structures morph like living things.”
The Bristol team aim to put electro-origami technology into products within a few years and have been awarded follow-on funding to pursue commercial applications. They are already building on their impressive early stage results to deliver the next generation of stronger, lighter and faster electro-origami devices and artificial muscles.