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Tim Helps, University of Bristol

Credit card-sized soft pump can power artificial muscles

Image credit: Soft robotic pump

Researchers at the University of Bristol have developed soft pumps as small as a credit card, which can be used to power wearable robotic muscles.

People with muscular degeneration or spinal cord injuries can wear robotic exoskeletons to help them build strength; however, these machines are bulky, expensive and only the smallest are untethered. Now, robotic clothing which could assist people with movement is one step closer to reality, thanks to the development of a flexible, lightweight power system for soft robotics.

Soft robotics are developed from compliant materials that can stretch and twist, making them suitable for human interaction and resistant to types of damage.  These soft materials can be transformed into artificial muscles that contract when air is pumped into them (pneumatic artificial muscles), and their softness makes them suitable to powering assistive clothing.

Until now, however, these artificial muscles have been powered by conventional electromagnetic pumps, which require either large, heavy pressure vessels or noisy and inefficient air pumps.

Researchers from the University of Bristol’s SoftLab and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, led by Professor Jonathan Rossiter, offered an alternative: a new electro-pneumatic pump which is soft, bendable, low-cost, and easy to fabricate.

The device is actuated using dielectric fluid-amplified electrostatic zipping; this uses the deflection of an electrode with varying voltage to achieve actuation. The soft pump can power pneumatic artificial muscles and pump fluids, silently controlling volume and pressure. It is around the size of a credit card, with a thickness of 1.1mm and weight of 5.3g.

The researchers presented three very different basic applications for their device: an antagonistic mechanism, an arm-flexing wearable robotic device, and a continuous pumping system.

“The lives of thousands of people with mobility issues could be transformed with this new technology,” said Rossiter. “The new pumps are an important development that will help us deliver comfortable and stylish power-assisted clothing.”

“We are now working to make the electro-pneumatic pumps smaller and more efficient and we are actively seeking partners to commercialise the technologies.”

Rossiter and his colleagues hope that their work could pave the way for more practical wearable assist devices for people with disabilities and age-related muscle degeneration

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