Army researchers and visiting scientists are working on two avenues of research that could lead to robotic muscles that contract and move like biological ones. This would allow the construction of more quiet robots as well as drastically improve the efficiency and form of prosthetic devices and exoskeletons.
Remember that LS3 Mule robot the Marines tested but then decided against deploying because it was just too noisy for use on the frontlines? That was sort of crazy, right? But Army researchers are doing a large amount of work to make quiet, robotic muscles to reinforce soldiers, exoskeletons, and robots of the future.
It might sound sort of odd that the servos on a robot could be too noisy for the place where mortars and machine guns are fired. But Marines and soldiers try to stay quiet and stealthy until the fight starts. Then they start firing, and it's fine to be super noisy. But a new problem pops up, then: you don't want any systems to run out of power in the middle of a firefight. And firefights are some of the worst times to change out batteries. You need to be efficient.
But those two problems with the Legged Squad Support System, as the robot program was officially known, could be fixed with one—albeit major—breakthrough. Humans can move without any sound of motors and can go for days or even weeks when necessary with little new energy input. All it takes is muscles instead of motors.
And muscles can use chemical fuels much more efficiently than most motors and other machines. A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 calories, enough to propel a fit human 912 miles on the bicycle or 260 miles running.
Muscles are very efficient both in terms of energy consumed and weight. That makes them very attractive to engineers, especially ones that need to make stealthy machines.
And scientists are working on that. So, yeah, welcome to the future.
A graphic shows how proteins are structured.
The Army Research Laboratory has recently highlighted two related tracks that scientists are currently moving down. One group of researchers is focusing on a much better understanding of how human muscles work, and other scientists just enjoyed a 10-day visit from a professor who helped them understand how polymer, or plastic, strands can be made to coil and uncoil like a muscle, to function like a muscle.
So, the first group is seeking to reverse engineer biological muscles, and that second group is basically studying ways of making plastic muscles.
BTW, if that first group sounds like a bunch of flunkies, "How do they not know how muscles work? I eat carbohydrates and proteins, and I get bigger muscles. Not complicated," then realize that none of us know how muscles really work on a micro level, the level needed to really engineer a muscle. One of the researchers put it well. Dean Culver said:
These widely accepted muscle contraction models are akin to a black-box understanding of a car engine. More gas, more power. It weighs this much and takes up this much space. Combustion is involved. But, you can't design a car engine with that kind of surface-level information. You need to understand how the pistons work, and how finely injection needs to be tuned. That's a component-level understanding of the engine. We dive into the component-level mechanics of the built-up protein system and show the design and control value of living functionality as well as a clearer understanding of design parameters that would be key to synthetically reproducing such living functionality.
Both the projects would result in chemically powered muscles. One group would just create the muscle "fibers" out of plastic instead of proteins. Either way, future warriors could use the extra muscles from the scientists.
But the science is still in the nascent stages, so the real muscle suits probably won't be available until you need them more for getting around the retirement home than the battlefield.
Until then, you can always get a sweet Halloween muscle suit instead.
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