Soft robotics enable smoother movement and greater dexterity than hard material robotics, traditionally at the cost of strength. Similarly, when we were kids, many of us learned the different characteristics of erector sets and cat’s cradle. We’ve written about soft robotics applications for exoskeletons and movement assistive clothing. Recently researchers at Wyss Institute at Harvard University and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) employed soft materials, fluid, and mad origami skills to create soft robotic artificial muscles able to move as much as 1,000 times their weight.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers expressed their surprise at the strength of the origami-inspired artificial muscles. “We expected they’d have a higher maximum functional weight than ordinary soft robots, but we didn’t expect a thousand-fold increase. It’s like giving these robots superpowers,” says Daniela Rus, Ph.D., one of the lead researchers. The team focused on designing how the structures folded, which determines their movement. Each structure has an inner skeleton in a sealed plastic or textile bag filled with air or liquid. The motion of the muscles occurs in reaction to a vacuum applied inside the bag. The vision for this technology foresees compact, simple artificial muscles that can be mounted on a body, providing robotic function without great weight or bulky structure.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundations (NSF), and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering funded the research. The work so far has proved to be scalable and amenable to a wide range of materials, which widens the horizon for potential applications.