Artificial Muscles Get a Grip on Human Hand
Six years ago a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, Calif., issued a unique challenge: build a robotic arm
using artificial muscles that could arm wrestle a human. The
results of that challenge will be determined today, when three
such robotic arms will "step into the ring" to compete against a 17-
year-old high school student. The ultimate goal is to win against
the strongest human on Earth.
Image right: An artist's concept illustrating electroactive polymers, nicknamed "artificial muscles." Image credit: NASA/JPL
When he issued the challenge, Dr. Yoseph Bar-Cohen, a physicist at
JPL, wanted to jump-start research in electroactive polymers, also
known as artificial muscles. He didn't expect to see the challenge
fulfilled for at least a couple of decades. "Given the technology
we had in 1999, I thought it would take at least 20 years before we
could do it," said Bar-Cohen, who has been called the "Artificial
But he was wrong, and today's event is a big step forward in
the development and testing of these technologies. If the robotic
arm wins, it will open doors for many engineering technologies in
medicine, military defense and even entertainment. "You have to ask
whether science fiction drives reality, or reality drives science
fiction," Bar-Cohen said.
The three artificial arms and their teams come from around the
world. Researchers from New Mexico and Switzerland built arms made
of plastics and polymers. A group of students from Virginia Tech
University in Blacksburg, Virginia will also test their arm
invention made of gel fibers and electrochemical cells.
The arm wrestling contest is one of the highlights at the
Electroactive Polymer and Devices conference to be held March 7-10,
at the Town and Country Resort & Convention Center in San Diego.
The arm wrestling competition is March 7, from 5:00 to 6:00 pm in
the Town & Country room at the convention center. The conference
and competition are part of the Smart Structures and Materials
symposium sponsored by the International Society for Optical
Panna Felsen, a senior at La Costa Canyon High School in San Diego
who has participated in student robotics competitions, will try to
make the robotic arms buckle during the contest. "I'm really
excited to be the human opponent, but I have no plans of making it
easy for the arms to win against me," Felsen said. "The match will
be a fair test of strength."
After the competition, eight organizations will demonstrate other
applications using artificial muscles, including an android head
that makes and responds to facial expressions, biologically
inspired robotic mechanisms and windows that change colors
Electroactive polymers are simple, lightweight strips of highly
flexible plastic that bend or stretch when put into contact with
chemicals or electricity. They are quiet and shatterproof and can
be used to imitate human muscle movements.
A small team of scientists at JPL, in cooperation with research
centers worldwide, are working to turn these plastic strips into
grippers and strings that can grab and lift loads. JPL engineers
are also hoping to build a rover with legs fitted with artificial
muscles. The robot would be able to walk instead of rolling on
wheels on planetary surfaces. "My hope is to see a rover run like a
horse on Mars and climb steep mountains like a monkey, allowing us
to reach distances and heights that are not possible with wheeled
rovers," said Bar-Cohen who has chaired the conference for the past
six years. During the conference, he will receive the 2005 Smart
Materials and Structures Lifetime Achievement Award.
For more information about the competition on the Internet, visit:
For more information about the conference on the Internet, visit:
For more information on Electroactive Polymers on the Internet,
Natalie Godwin (818) 354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.