Scientists are going to develop soft exoskeletons that could feel almost like everyday clothes.
Most of the bionic devices manufactured so far were made from metals and plastics, materials that do not allow natural flexibility and comfort to the wearer. Now, researchers are turning to new materials that have the potential to revolutionize robotic technologies.
Elastic substances and gels will replace plastics and metals, while new smart materials, with the ability to mimic contractions of biological muscles, aim to make conventional motors and gearboxes in bionic devices obsolete.
An example of the new direction in which this technology is heading is a so-called artificial muscle, made out of a fishing line. Once the high-strength polymer fibers get twisted enough, they act as artificial torsional and tensile muscles. That means they can act like muscles in our bodies, while being 100 times stronger and 100 times more powerful. According to the article published in Science, the team of researchers led by Ray Baughman, director of the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas, Dallas, demonstrated that inexpensive polymer fibers, as used in fishing line and sewing thread, can generate “5.3 kilowatts of mechanical power per kilogram of muscle weight, similar to that produced by a jet engine.”
Until now, artificial muscles were mainly being produced out of carbon nanotubes and other cutting-edge exotic materials that are a couple thousand times more expensive. Moreover, artificial muscle made out of nanotubes can contract only 10% their initial length, compared with 50% of those made out of polymer fibers.
The contraction of such fibers might be induced by a temperature change, electricity, even light, when coated with photosensitive material. At this point we’ll just mention similar polymer-based synthetic muscle developed by researchers at the Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique, University of Strasbourg, containing chains of molecular motors which get activated by exposure to light.
Potential applications of these synthetic muscles are almost limitless. Among other things, they can be used in prosthetic (exoskeletons), android musculature, nanoscale architecture and wearables.
Adaptive bionic devices made out of materials similar to those previously mentioned can revolutionize technologies in products used for assistance and rehabilitation.
British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) recognized this potential and are now investing £5.3 million (almost $8 million) into the research on the next generation of such devices, including something called soft robotic smart trousers.
To develop such bionic assist products, researches from the Universities of Bristol, Southampton Nottingham Leeds, Loughborough, Strathclyde and the West of England will have to combine applied sciences of computation, sensing and actuation. Implanted sensors could directly monitor nerve signals which will then be processed by a computer in control of energy actuators. The intent is to help disabled and elderly persons have greater mobility and independence, but it would also have a potential to be used as a ‘more natural’ type of power exoskeleton that could boost ordinary person’s strength and endurance.