Imagine sitting on a park bench and watching a butterfly, whos perched on a nearby bush, open and close its wings in the sunlight, but the more you pay attention, the more you realize that the butterfly is not real, and is instead a small robot. This scenario could become a reality in the near future thanks to a new discovery in soft robotics.
Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have developed a new type of ultra-thin, artificial muscles that enable soft robots to move in a more lifelike manner. Using MXene, a class of carbon-titanium compounds measuring just a few atoms thick, the team was able to create a very small strip that acts as an actuator, giving anything it’s connected to, motion on demand. As a proof of concept, the team of researchers developed an art exhibit based around these new artificial muscles that featured a butterfly that could flap its wings, a tree whose leaves seem to flutter in the wind, and a flower broach that blooms in front of its wearer’s eyes.
Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) developed a soft robotic butterfly that can open and close its wings using a new flexible artificial muscle developed from a combination of MXene and polymer. (Image Credit: KAIST)
“Wearable robotics and kinetic art demonstrate how robotic muscles can have fun and beautiful applications,” said Il-Kwon Oh, a professor of mechanical engineering at KAIST, who led the research.
The team chose MXene material (T3C2Tx) which is comprised of thin layers of titanium and carbon compounds. Unfortunately, this compound is not flexible on its own and needed to be ionically cross-linked to a synthetic polymer. When paired together, the end result is a highly conductive, flexible material that is quite durable. The key to the muscle’s lifelike motion is the conductive properties of the actuator itself. When a low voltage is applied, the muscle contracts then expands slowly, this movement produces the life-like motion seen in the video above.
The team of researchers reported that this unique combination of materials performed better than others reported. Their actuator responded very quickly to low voltage and lasted for more than five hours moving continuously.
This new muscle is not just for art installations though, and the team envisions many applications in the soft robotics field including medical applications where controlled, the precise movement could be the difference between life and death. One could imagine a future where these tiny muscles are attached to soft nano-robots and are used to help control a nano-scale scalpel as it slices between the cellular walls of a cancerous tumor and healthy tissue.
“Wearable robotics and kinetic art demonstrate how robotic muscles can have fun and beautiful applications,” said Il-Kwon Oh, lead paper author and professor of mechanical engineering. “It also shows the enormous potential for small, artificial muscles for a variety of uses, such as haptic feedback systems and active biomedical devices.”
I have written a lot of articles in the past week or so about developments in nano-robotics, soft-robotics, and breakthroughs in electrical engineering and material sciences, but this little synthetic muscle excites me almost more than anything else. I have long believed that the future of medicine lies with nano-scale medical robots that are able to navigate through our blood vessels, tunnel to a problemed area of the body, and set about fixing things. Without tiny locomotion actuators like these from the team at KAIST, that future will never become a reality. Maybe I watched too much Osmosiss Joe as a kid, or maybe its something else that has me so excited about this discovery.