As part of the Impulsing PAradigm Change through disruptive Technologies Programme (ImPACT) Tough Robotics Challenge (Programme Manager: Satoshi Tadokoro), which is an initiative of the Cabinet Office Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, a research team succeeded in developing a hydraulic drive, high power artificial muscle.
The research team included Professor Koichi Suzumori from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Dr. Ryo Sakurai from Bridgestone.
The artificial muscle that was developed using rubber tube is extremely powerful but lightweight and has strong resistance to impact and vibration, allowing for the most compact and energy efficient tough robots ever created. It is expected that this will lead to the smallest, lightest, and most powerful consumer robots ever created in the near future.
Highlights of the research
Through the ImPACT Tough Robotics Challenge, their aim is to bring about 'Tough Robots' that are used for rescuing people and ensuring safety in extreme environments after disasters such as the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster and Han-Shin Awaji Earthquake Disaster in Japan. When existing robots are used in disaster situations, a number of problems arise. For example, they 'cannot operate at disaster sites', the 'situation is unknown', 'total breakdown in the event of failure', and they 'do not meet the working conditions'. These problems must be overcome to achieve the goal of this programme.
In this programme, in order to create 'Tough Robots' with excellent mobility and power that can be utilised for disaster recovery, the researchers are carring out research and development of 'tough hydraulic actuators', which are one of the key components. An actuator is a generic term for a device that generates 'motion and power' and includes motors and cylinders. Most robots that currently exist are driven by electric motors that are based on technology commonly used for consumer products, but there are problems related to their structure. First, the 'strength-to-weight ratio' (calculated by dividing the generated force by the weight of the actuator) is low (heavy and weak). Second, such robots have low resistance to outside impact and vibration (break easily), and third, it is difficult to achieve large power output while also having gentle movement according to the situation.
To address these problems, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Bridgestone have focused on the development of human muscles, which are capable of outputting a large amount of power while also being capable of flexible movement according to the work being done. Since 2014, the researchers have been collaborating to promote research and development of 'highly powerful artificial muscles' by striving for output greater than that possible by human muscles while also trying to reproduce their flexibility. These artificial muscles consist of rubber tubes and high-tensile fibres, and are actuated by hydraulic pressure. The use of rubber tubes and high-tensile fibres make it possible to achieve smooth movement, and the use of hydraulic pressure makes it possible to achieve a high 'strength-to-weight ratio', high shock and vibration resistance, and gentle movement appropriate for the work being done.
This research opens up new possibilities for creating robots that have greater 'toughness' than current robots; are highly resistant to external shock and vibration; able to perform high intensity jobs; and handle delicate jobs requiring precise power control as the situation necessitates.
Overview of research achievements
The high-power artificial muscle that was successfully developed is a kind of McKibben type artificial muscle. It consists of a rubber tube surrounded by a woven sleeve (many fibres woven into a cylindrical shape). Conventional McKibben type artificial muscles operate at an air pressure of 0.3 to 0.6 MPa (≒ 3 to 6 kgf/cm2), but the artificial muscle developed by the researchers can be used in hydraulic pressure drives, and is operable at a pressure of 5MPa (≒ 50 kgf/cm2), which is much higher than conventional McKibben type artificial muscles. Therefore, it is possible to generate a significantly higher amount of power with the muscle developed in this research.
The research team: (1) developed a new rubber material that has excellent oil resistance and deformation characteristics; (2) adjusted the method for weaving the high-tension chemical fibres; and (3) worked to develop a technique for tightening tube ends that can resist high pressures. As a result, the researchers were able to achieve an innovative, lightweight, and highly powerful artificial muscle with excellent pressure resistance and oil resistance, and that is capable of converting high hydraulic pressure into efficient power generation. It is an innovative actuator with a 'strength-to-weight ratio' that is 5 to 10 times greater than conventional electric motors and hydraulic cylinders.
The artificial muscle developed in this research consists of a rubber tube surrounded by a woven sleeve, so it is highly resistant to strong external shocks and vibrations. It is expected to lead to tough robots that can handle work where shocks are applied, which is difficult for existing robots driven by electric motors to handle (for example, making holes in walls using an impact drill, chipping concrete walls, etc).
The researchers will continue to proceed with the development and implementation of tough robots that use this artificial muscle in order to contribute to the realisation and spread of advanced robot services for a safe and secure society. In addition, they are aiming to achieve higher performance and to help spread its use and development as a consumer-use robot actuator.
Remarks by Satoshi Tadokoro, Manager of the ImPACT Programme
The purpose of the ImPACT Tough Robotics Challenge is to create various 'tough' technologies that are essential for robots used for disaster prevention and emergency response and recovery, rescue, and humanitarian support, and to establish industrial innovations through the creation of new projects along with social innovation for disaster prevention. We are promoting such project research development.
Robots that operate in disaster areas need to be lightweight, powerful, capable of controlling large forces precisely, have sufficient shock resistance, and other 'mechanical toughness', which is different from robots used indoors and in factories. Methods using electric motors and reduction gears have limitations, so hydraulic actuators are essential. This research has developed a new McKibben type artificial muscle that can be driven by a hydraulic pressure of 5MPa, and that can generate significantly more power than conventional methods while also being light. In addition, it is possible to minimise sliding friction, which becomes an issue when trying to achieve high precision control, and it has strong resistance to shock. It is expected that this component will allow for great progress to be made towards the practical application of robots in extreme environments such as disasters.