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Soft Filaments Form Artificial Muscles
Robots need to work with people, and they need to occupy the same spaces and manipulate the same environment (doors and cabinets, for example). Soft, artificial muscle fibers may be a good match.
"Thin soft filaments that can easily stretch, bend, twist or shear are capable of extreme deformations that lead to knot-like, braid-like or loop-like structures that can store or release energy easily," said L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and of Physics. "This has been exploited by a number of experimental groups recently to create prototypical artificial muscle fibers. But how the topology, geometry and mechanics of these slender fibers come together during this process was not completely clear. Our study explains the theoretical principles underlying these shape transformations, and sheds light on the underlying design principles."
"Soft fibers are the basic unit of a muscle and could be used in everything from robotics to smart textiles that can respond to stimuli such as heat or humidity," said Nicholas Charles, a PhD student in Applied Mathematics and first author of the paper. "The possibilities are endless, if we can understand the system. Our work explains the complex morphology of soft, strongly stretched and twisted fibers and provides guidelines for the best designs."
Fans of Battletech recall that the giant robot "mechs" are powered by an artificial muscle called "Myomer", a fibrous material consisting of microscopically thin tubes filled with a substance (acti-strandular fiber) that contracts when voltage is applied. (See also the power wagons from Jack Vance's 1967 novel The Last Castle for a similar idea.)
BattleMechs are initially made up of a series of internal structure "bones" which are connected together to form the skeleton of the 'Mech. An electroactive polymer called myomer, which contracts in the presence of an electric current, is then wrapped around these bones. This powerful myomer transmission system is what gives BattleMechs their speed and agility in even the roughest terrain.
The necessary electric current for the myomers is provided by a fusion reactor mounted in the torso. This artificial skeleton and musculature combined with a powerful gyroscope provide stability for the BattleMech. The entire system is controlled by a pilot wearing a neurohelmet that effectively links the 'Mech's central computer to the pilot's sense of balance and nervous system. The neurohelmet also gives feedback by providing a kinesthetic sense of the mech's position for better judgement of balance. The movement of a 'Mech is controlled by a combination of throttle, joysticks, and dual pedal system.
See also the entry for artificial muscles from Cyborg by Martin Caidin.
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