Twisted Threads Make Strong, Supple Robo-Muscles
The polymer muscles are 100 times stronger than human muscles and have the power output of an automobile engine.
The Labor Day weekend is upon us, but technology is not going on vacation. This week, we highlight innovations including roll-up batteries, transparent artificial muscles, robots that clean your house and a brain grown in a dish, just to name a few.
In a project called Warrior Web, the US Military is developing a soft, lightweight under-suit for soldiers that would reduce injuries and fatigue while improving the wearer's ability to walk, run, jump or crawl over a wide range of terrain. Durable and washable, the garment would boost endurance using no more than 100 watts of power.
This week, Boeing rolled out its first 787-9 aircraft, a variant of the Dreamliner. It's I20 feet longer than the 787-8 and will carry 250 to 290 passengers, 40 more than the 787-8.
Elio Motors recently announced financial plans for the future of its three-wheeled Elio, which costs $6,000 and gets 84 mpg. By the end of 2014, it hopes to sell 68,333 units, ramping up to a full quarter-million per year from 2015 onwards. Auto experts think that might be reaching a little too high.
Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS Communications
Jeong-Yun Sun (left) and Christoph Keplinger (right) demonstrate their transparent ionic speaker, which uses ions, rather than electrons, to vibrate a rubber membrane. The material could lead to artificial muscles, transparent loudspeakers and power sources that generate electricity when squeezed or stretched.
An innovative idea from Yanko Design improves upon the battery. They've created a solar power strip that, when flattened under the sun, recharges. Users then roll up the strip into the shape of a AA-sized, AAA-sized or C-sized battery. The tighter you roll, the smaller the diameter of the battery.
Adrian Perez Zapata
Designer Adrian Perez Zapata is a semifinalist in the 2013 Electrolux Design Lab competition with his "Mab" concept for cleaning a house. The system incorporates hundreds of mini-robots that go forth and scrub, dust, sweep and shine. When they're finished, they return to a spherical home base to be recharged.
Madeline A. Lancaster
A team of European scientists has grown parts of a human brain in tissue culture from stem cells. The organoid, which took 20 days to grow, exhibited growth patterns seen in a developing, fetal brain and developed specific brain regions, such as the cortex and the hindbrain. Here all cells are in blue, neural stem cells in red and neurons in green.
Scientists at the TU Delft have built the world's smallest drone that comes with its own control system. The Lisa/S weighs just 0.07 ounces and measures only 0.8 x 0.8 inches. The micro aerial vehicle could be used for environmental surveillance as well as building reconnaissance.
In his latest visualization project, the Pittsburgh-based artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm imagines what the net household income of each neighborhood in NYC would look like if it were reflected in building height. The result: a towering cityscape of green, 3-D bars, where every $100,000 of net worth corresponds to one centimeter on Lamm’s map.
Robot enthusiast Adam Conway turned a drone into a flying Wi-Fi hotspot. Conway, a product manager at Aerohive, which provides corporate IT networks, used a quadrotor frame, some plywood, and an old router to build a drone that can provide a Wi-Fi connection over the local LTE phone network. Such a device could be handy in a post-disaster scenario or in areas lacking Internet.
The current generation of robots always seem so, well, robotic. Their herky-jerky movements are the result of the stiff wires and pulleys that contract and expand to move their limbs. But what if robo-muscles were more like our own; strong, yet supple, self-sufficient for long periods of time (think of the human battery life versus a robot’s) and able to make complex fine motor movements like writing or sewing.
Scientists say they’ve figured out a simple way to build such muscles using nothing more than nylon fishing line and thread. The secret: twisting the material until it becomes super-strong.
“They are so simple to make,” said Ray Baughman, professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Dallas and an author on the paper appearing today in the journal Science. “High school students can pick this up.”
Baughman and his team had previously built artificial muscles using carbon nanotubes, slender chains of carbon molecules that are also super-strong. But over the years, he found that simple nylon line and sewing thread works just as well and is a lot cheaper.
“For our previous artificial muscles, we had to use special nanotubes and spinning techniques that meant people around the world couldn’t do it. Here, young people can make these muscles easily and deploy them.”
The team, which included researchers from Canada, Australia and China, says the polymer muscles are 100 times stronger than human muscles and have the power output of an automobile engine. They contract and relax in response to temperature changes that are controlled by a heating element. The goal is to use them to build low-cost robots and prosthetic devices, according to Baughman.
He noted that the nylon material they used costs $5 per kilogram, compared to $4,000 to $5,000 per kilogram for similar nickel-titanium wires often used in existing robotic muscle devices. The twisted nylon muscles could also be used in clothing with fabric that could open and close automatically in response to heat or cold, or adjust greenhouse glass windows instead of using motors and electricity.
“There’s no obstacle,” Baughman told Discovery News. “It’s the first time in my life that I’m able to say this. The difficult thing, making the nylon fibers, has already been done.”
One expert says there are no scientific show-stoppers in getting these new twisty nylon yarn muscles into commercialization.
“The numbers are impressive, in terms of what they managed to measure and it is not using an exotic material, but a material well-established, not expensive and in production for years,” said Yoshi Bar-Cohen, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It looks like something you could mass produce.”