Self-Healing Robot Muscles May Revolutionize Prosthetic Limbs For Amputees

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Figures from the Amputee Coalition show that there are nearly 2 million people in the United States who live with limb loss.

About 185,000 amputations also occur in the country each year mainly due to vascular diseases, trauma, and cancer.

Artificial limbs, or prosthetics, make it possible for these people to do activities that they may no longer be able to do. Now, a new technology may revolutionize the prosthetic limbs that amputees depend on to function more independently.

Researchers have developed robotic muscles that are flexible but strong. Unlike other robotic devices, these soft and powerful artificial muscles can also sense their own movements just like human muscles and nerves.

Best of all, it does not cost an arm and a leg to produce. Researchers said that it costs only 10 cents to make making it a promising technology for amputees who rely on prosthetic limbs.

Researchers were able to demonstrate the ability of the muscles called the “Hydraulically-amplified Self-healing Electrostatic” actuators, or HASEL actuators, to power mechanical arm while simultaneously sensing position.

It comes as no surprise that the device holds promise in the field of prosthetics. Christoph Keplinger, from the University of Colorado Boulder, and colleagues who work on the technology said that biological muscles served as a model for HASEL actuators.

“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” said Keplinger. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”

Researchers also said that the device can heal from electrical damage. Other soft actuators that are controlled by high voltage use a solid insulating layer that can fail from electrical damage. HASEL actuators, however, use liquid insulating layer and this allows for immediate recovery of insulating properties following an electrical damage.

“We introduce prototypical designs of HASEL actuators and demonstrate their robust, muscle-like performance as well as their ability to repeatedly self-heal after dielectric breakdown-all using widely available materials and common fabrication techniques,” Keplinger and colleagues wrote in the journal Science.

The device also has potential industrial applications such as in food packaging and handling.

“These actuators featured characteristics such as high optical transparency and the ability to self-sense their deformation state. Hence, this class of actuators demonstrates promise for applications such as active prostheses, medical and industrial automation, and autonomous robotic devices,” the researchers wrote in Science Robotics.

 

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