A soft robotic arm uses an origami-like skeleton in order to grasp a tire. Photo: Shuguang Li / MIT CSAIL

Soft robots with flexible and adaptable parts may be best equipped to interact with humans and occupy our sometimes unpredictable world. They can be more agile thanks to squishy and bendable materials but they also require soft versions of motors which, until now, haven't been as strong as their rigid counterparts.

What's new: In a paper published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers at Harvard and MIT outlined a new design for artificial muscles that can provide more power to the machines than previous designs, per The Verge's James Vincent. "Soft robots have so much potential, but up until now, one of the limitations has been payloads," MIT's Daniela Rus told Vincent. "[They're] very safe, very gentle, but not good for lifting heavy objects. This new approach allows us to make strong and soft robots."

How it works: The artificial muscle is made up of a deformable origami-like skeleton inside a sealed bag. Air (or water or conceivably other fluids) is pumped in and out, creating a difference in pressure that contracts the skeleton's shape. The researchers report the muscle is able to use this action to lift 1000 times its own weight.

Different origami shapes can be used to produce different movements — twisting and bending, for example. By combining multiple muscles with different skeletal structures, the researchers envision being able to create machines that can perform complicated maneuvers — like picking up a tire. And, by changing the materials used for the different components, the muscles can be quickly and inexpensively fabricated for specific applications. (The researchers made one that dissolved in water.)

Where they could be used: Medical devices, robotic exoskeletons that humans can wear and large structures that can be deployed in space are all possible applications, the researchers wrote.

Go deeper: Read more about advances in soft robotics.

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