Research ArticleACTUATORS

Electrostatic bellow muscle actuators and energy harvesters that stack up

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Science Robotics  24 Feb 2021:
Vol. 6, Issue 51, eaaz5796
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aaz5796

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Abstract

Future robotic systems will be pervasive technologies operating autonomously in unknown spaces that are shared with humans. Such complex interactions make it compulsory for them to be lightweight, soft, and efficient in a way to guarantee safety, robustness, and long-term operation. Such a set of qualities can be achieved using soft multipurpose systems that combine, integrate, and commute between conventional electromechanical and fluidic drives, as well as harvest energy during inactive actuation phases for increased energy efficiency. Here, we present an electrostatic actuator made of thin films and liquid dielectrics combined with rigid polymeric stiffening elements to form a circular electrostatic bellow muscle (EBM) unit capable of out-of-plane contraction. These units are easy to manufacture and can be arranged in arrays and stacks, which can be used as a contractile artificial muscle, as a pump for fluid-driven soft robots, or as an energy harvester. As an artificial muscle, EBMs of 20 to 40 millimeters in diameter can exert forces of up to 6 newtons, lift loads over a hundred times their own weight, and reach contractions of over 40% with strain rates over 1200% per second, with a bandwidth over 10 hertz. As a pump driver, these EBMs produce flow rates of up to 0.63 liters per minute and maximum pressure head of 6 kilopascals, whereas as generator, they reach a conversion efficiency close to 20%. The compact shape, low cost, simple assembling procedure, high reliability, and large contractions make the EBM a promising technology for high-performance robotic systems.

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