Harvard and MIT scientists have built robot muscles that can lift 1,000 times their own weight

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Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) announced today (Nov. 27) that they’ve created robotic “muscles” that can lift up to 1,000 times their own weight. The simple objects are constructed out of metal or plastic “skeletons” that are covered in either a liquid or air, and then sealed in plastic or fabric “skins.” The muscle pulls taught when a vacuum is created inside the skin, and goes slack when the vacuum is released. By folding the skeletons in different ways, the vacuum can pull the muscle in different directions.

Structures like these aren’t conceptually new: researchers have been working for years on robots that are soft and light enough that they wouldn’t crush humans if they fell, but strong enough that they’re actually useful. But up until now, robots like this have generally had to sacrifice strength for squishiness. This team’s discovery that simply folding materials like origami and moving them through varying water or air pressure could mean that it might not be long before we have robots that can operate safely around us.

“Vacuum-based muscles have a lower risk of rupture, failure, and damage, and they don’t expand when they’re operating, so you can integrate them into closer-fitting robots on the human body,” Daniel Vogt, a research engineer at the Wyss Institute, said in a release.

These new structures are also surprisingly cheap. As they don’t require anything other than water or air to move them, the researchers told Harvard that a single muscle can be built in about 10 minutes, for less than $1. (Obviously, there’d still be a cost for the vacuum or whatever is being used to change the pressure of the muscles.)

It’s just another step along the way of turning the robots from our science-fiction dreams into a reality.