June 3, 2002
Artificial muscles may someday upstage the world heavyweights of wrestling in a championship arm-wrestling match.
This science fiction scenario might become a reality as the current trend continues toward developing artificial muscles for robots that appear and behave like humans or animals. Scientists and engineers worldwide are focusing on biologically inspired technologies like artificial muscles and intelligence. In the future, insect-like robots might relieve their manufacturer's burden by packing themselves for shipping. Intelligent robots might read books aloud, discuss stock options and even replace dogs as man's best friend.
"My vision is that we may see one day either bionic people, namely individuals with artificial muscles, or robots that mimic biology," said Dr. Yoseph Bar-Cohen, senior research scientist at JPL.
The Great Arm-Wrestling Challenge
Since 1996, Bar-Cohen has been both a mentor and promoter of technologies related to materials called electroactive polymers. Nicknamed "artificial muscles," these materials bend, stretch and contract like biological muscles when an electrical charge is applied to them.
To stimulate interest in electroactive polymers, Bar-Cohen posed an ongoing challenge three years ago to scientists and engineers worldwide. He wanted to see if anyone could develop a robotic arm driven by artificial muscles that could arm wrestle against a human and win. "This challenge requires tackling the problem on all its fronts-from fundamental science and engineering to robotic control and artificial intelligence," he said.
Although that challenge has not yet been met, scientists have made progress in finding ways to control a robotic arm. In addition, Bar-Cohen hopes to see technology that will combine artificial muscles with prosthetics and allow disabled people to perform physical tasks independently.
Scientists and engineers in at least 14 other countries have joined the effort to make effective electroactive polymers the activators of choice in future devices and mechanisms. One such activator is a dust wiper, reminiscent of a tiny windshield wiper, that can perform a variety of tasks, such as cleaning the solar panels of a spacecraft. The wiper may be included in a future space mission.
"The development of the dust wiper has been a very important milestone for the field of electroactive polymers, as it marked the first recognition of the capability of these materials to provide unique solutions that no other material or mechanism can," Bar-Cohen said.
Scientists may have produced results in laboratories, but a lot more work needs to be done before robots begin packing themselves for home delivery and dishing out stock tips during cocktail parties.
"My hopes are still high for this field, but my expectations of the development rate are more realistic," Bar-Cohen said. "The field has still to improve its infrastructure and obtain a better understanding of the material's behavior before devices can be created for the general public."
JPL/Charli Schuler (818) 354-3965