Scientists create portable engine to power artificial muscles in assistive devices

Credit: Advanced Intelligent Systems (2024).

Researchers have developed a lightweight, powerful fluidic engine that can drive muscle-mimicking soft robots for assistive devices.

This innovative engine can generate significant force without needing an external power source, making it a game-changer for soft robotics.

“Soft robots powered by fluid engines, like hydraulic or pneumatic systems, can mimic muscle behavior in ways that rigid robots can’t,” explains Hao Su, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University.

“This makes them ideal for assistive devices that help people move their limbs.”

Most fluid engines are usually connected to large external power sources, such as air compressors, which limits their usefulness. Previous untethered fluid engines couldn’t generate enough force to be practical.

The new fluidic engine addresses both these issues.

“Our engine isn’t tethered to an external source but can still generate up to 580 Newtons of force,” says Su.

The engine works by pumping oil into and out of a chamber in the soft robot, causing it to flex and relax like an artificial muscle. A battery-powered high-torque motor drives the pump, creating significant pressure and enabling the artificial muscle to exert a strong force.

In proof-of-concept testing, the researchers assessed the force generated by the new engine and its efficiency in converting electrical power into fluidic power.

They found that the engine could produce an unprecedented amount of force for an untethered engine while remaining lightweight.

“We managed to keep the fluidic engine light and generate a significant amount of force,” says Antonio Di Lallo, the first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at NC State. “Our engine’s efficiency is also higher than previous portable, untethered engines.”

This breakthrough in fluidic engines could revolutionize assistive devices, making them more effective and easier to use. The engine’s ability to generate high force without being tethered opens up new possibilities for wearable robotics, improving mobility for individuals who need assistance.

The paper, “Untethered Fluidic Engine for High-Force Soft Wearable Robots,” is published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems.

This innovative engine paves the way for the development of more advanced and practical soft robots, which could greatly enhance the quality of life for people with mobility challenges.