Muscle-mimicking soft robots can help with physical therapy

They can make rehabilitation exercises easier.


Some soft robots can wriggle into tight spots and swim like a real octopus. These ones developed by a team from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), however, are also capable of doing something more: they can help with the physical rehabilitation of people recovering from injuries and illnesses. The EPFL team have created a number of flexible, reconfigurable machines that can mimic human muscles' movement. They're made of silicon and rubber -- though the team also made a variant using a thick paper shell -- and they can be controlled by manipulating how much air they have inside.

One of the medical devices they created with their soft robots is a belt that keeps patients upright and controls their movements during rehabilitation exercises. As you can see above, the current version is made of several, sausage-like soft robots, hooked to big, external pumps that can regulate their air pressure. The researchers are working to scale those pumps down, though, so they can be strapped to the belt itself. In the future, these squishy machines could lead to safe and flexible exoskeletons, perhaps something similar to Harvard's that was designed to help patients regain control of their lower limbs.