Credit card-sized pumps with the potential to power artificial muscles


By Carissa Wong, Fourth Year PhD, Cancer Immunology

A soft and bendable pump that can power artificial muscles could pave the way for a new kind of power clothing which could help patients with mobility problems.

Researchers from Bristol’s SoftLab and the world-renowned Bristol Robotics Laboratory have revealed an exciting new type of pump that is flexible, quiet, low-cost and easy to build.

The study, led by Professor Jonathan Rossiter, was carried out by a soft robotics team at the University of Bristol and recently published in Science Robotics.

One day soft robotics could give us wearable artificial muscles | Unsplash/ this is engineering

Thousands of people with disabilities and age-related muscle degeneration have mobility difficulties which limit their quality of life.

Soft robots are made from stretchy and twistable materials, enabling them to move like living tissue. Therefore, soft robots are highly applicable to building artificial muscles, compared to conventional rigid robots.

‘The lives of thousands of people with mobility issues could be transformed with this new technology.’

As in many soft robots, artificial muscles contain bladders which can be inflated and deflated by air pumps to cause muscle contraction and relaxation. Until now, artificial muscles have been powered using traditional motor-driven pumps which are bulky, noisy, expensive and tricky to make.

Professor Rossiter, from the Department of Engineering Mathematics and Head of the Soft Robotics group explained:The new pumps are an important development that will help us deliver comfortable and stylish, power-assisting clothing.’.

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The pump was demonstrated to power artificial muscles and pump fluids, taking the field one step closer towards wearable artificial muscles. The impacts of this could be huge; stroke, Parkinson’s and muscle-wasting disease patients can all experience irreversible mobility problems. In an innovative future, robotic artificial muscles could empower these patients to move easily once again.

Featured image: Unsplash/ Avery Evans