• 03.17.17

Researchers Develop Fabric That Flexes Like Muscles

Once the province of science fiction, exoskeletons today are helping the elderly walk and construction workers lift more while exerting less.

But they’re often clunky and robotic. Even when they’re well-designed, like Yves Béhar’s slick, wet suit meant to help the aging population, they require you to actually wear electronics. Now researchers are attempting to integrate actuators that simulate the movement of muscles into textiles to provide a more comfortable version of the high-tech robo-exoskeleton.

In a paper recently published by Science Advances, researchers from Linköping University and the University of Borås in Sweden created what they’re calling “wearable artificial muscles” by coating fabric with electroactive polymers that stretch and flex when an electric current runs through them. By weaving together several layers of the coated textiles–similar to the layers of fibers in human muscle–the researchers were able to increase the strength of the current so that it could successfully move a simple lever arm made of Lego using only the force from the textile.

The lever arm weighs only a few grams and moved less than a centimeter. And the technology is not yet advanced enough to move anything much more than that, but it indicates a step toward a future in which people who are aging or disabled could wear tights that in effect act like a second set of muscles.

“This is early work. We’ve shown for the first time you can make textile muscles,” says Edwin Jager, an associate professor at Linköping University who studies bioelectronics and soft actuators. “Hopefully one day you can have shirts and pants.”KS