Australian engineers create smart textile which acts like biological muscle
A team of biomedical engineers in Australia have developed a smart textile which incorporates artificial 'muscles', in the hopes that it will revolutionise the future of soft robotics and wearable exoskeletons.
The team demonstrated the shape-morphing flexibility of the material to Reuters, with models of a butterfly and flower made from the textile, performing complex motions in their lab.
Team leader Thanh Nho Do is thinking bigger and believes that he and his team could even use the material to create a human smart suit.
"Like the Iron Man suit or Spiderman suit," said Do, who is also Director of the University of New South Wales Medical Robotics Lab. "It's very flexible and has a very high conformability to the bodies."
The programmable smart textiles were created by weaving or knitting fabric together with artificial muscle fibres. The resultant material has the ability to shape-shift and can lift objects up to 192 times their weight, according to the team in their academic paper published in June. The ‘muscle fibres’ were constructed from long silicon tubes filled with fluid, and then manipulated hydraulically using a syringe, as detailed in the academic paper.
Do say that the material has a wide range of potential applications.
"We can use our technology to make a soft wearable device for human augmentation or we can support disabled people to walk again," he said.
One potential use is in compression garments. The team showcased prototypes pulsing over a finger and forearm, which could provide massage therapy to relieve pain or improve blood circulation.
Another potential use is through the creation of shape-shifting robots to assist search-and-rescue teams in accessing hard-to-reach locations, said the bioengineers.
The team illustrated this by curling the material around a much larger screw, lifting it out of a narrow tube with ease.
The soft material presents an improvement upon many existing technologies in this field, which are often rigid or heavy and limit usability in changing environments like a bushfire or collapsed building, according to the team's research.
The team is also working on creating a non-invasive device that can wrap around the heart and assist it to pump blood around the body, to help people with cardiovascular problems, thanks to funding from the National Heart Foundation of Australia.
"The way our artificial (muscle) works is similar to the human's biological motions… we can control the muscle have elongation or expansion or contraction on demand," explained Do.
However, the team currently has to manually control the hydraulic pressure through syringe outlets connected to the material. They envision that in around two years the material can be controlled wirelessly and it will be ready for commercialisation.