To help pave the way for a new generation of robots that are soft-bodied and safer to perform tasks in close proximity to humans, a team of researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed an actuator that generates movements similar to those of skeletal muscles using vacuum power to automate soft, rubber beams.

In this image, VAMPs are shown actuated and cut open in cross section. The cross section shows the inner chambers that collapse when vacuum is applied.
Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Like the human bicep muscle, the new actuators are soft, shock absorbing, and are the most similar to human muscle in terms of response time and efficiency, the researchers say.

The actuator, made of soft rubber, is filled with small, hollow chambers of air like a honeycomb. By applying vacuum, the chambers collapse and the entire actuator contracts, generating movement. The internal honeycomb structure can be custom tailored to enable linear, twisting, bending, or combinatorial motions. These vacuum-actuated muscle-inspired pneumatic structures (VAMPs) mimic true muscle because they contract, which would allow them to be used in confined spaces and for a variety of purposes.