Artificial fibers allow robots to adjust output on the fly.
What’s the primary difference between the human body and a robot? No, I’m not trying to pose a philosophical question to you, I’m talking about the literal body. The difference between human muscles and a robotic body made up of hydraulics and whatnot is that muscle fiber is naturally adaptable. A hydraulic motor can only put out a very specific amount of strength at a given time, and adjustments usually take at least a few seconds. Muscles can adjust their output on the fly, shifting weight and pressure freely. It’s on this principle that the US Military is building their latest mechanoids.
Researchers with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, AKA “DEVCOM,” have been collaborating with researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina to create robots utilizing artificial muscle fibers. This is a relatively young field of study known as “biohybrid robotics.”
“Though impressive in their own right, today’s robots are deployed to serve a limited purpose then are retrieved some minutes later,” said scientist Dr. Dean Culver. “ARL wants robots to be versatile teammates capable of going anywhere Soldiers can and more, adapting to the needs of any given situation. Biohybrid robotics integrates living organisms to mechanical systems to improve performance.
“Organisms outperform engineered robots in so many ways. Why not use biological components to achieve those remarkable capabilities?”
The current test subject is the Legged Squad Support System, a four-legged autonomous robot developed by the Marine Corps. The robot is designed to quickly traverse all kinds of terrain to deliver important supplies to soldiers on the front line, but since it’s just a machine, it can’t navigate all terrains equally well. By introducing artificial muscle fibers, the researchers hope to make a similar quadrupedal machine that can instantly adapt to any kind of surface and run across it like a real animal.
In addition to developing these robots, the researchers are looking to create their own muscle tissue cultures rather than having to extract them directly from animals. This research should provide some interesting insight into how muscle proteins function.