| 05 May 2024

Bringing artificial muscles to life, using textiles?

Yes. Smart textiles, to be exact, that can mimic and support the movement of the human body. This is the result of biomedical engineers manipulating fabrics to develop artificial muscles and generate robotic ingenuity. 

This revolutionary technology is promising a range of medical applications and phenomenally, could assist those with limited mobility through exoskeletal movement. In other words, help them walk again. 

This new class of smart textiles can shape-shift and turn a two-dimensional material into 3D structures. The technology involves soft, artificial muscles made of long silicon tubes filled with fluid and manipulated with hydraulics. The artificial muscles are surrounded by a helical coil of traditional fibres with the ability to be programmed, changing how they might contract, expand or morph into a variety of shapes.  

The textile was developed by UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering and the Tyree Foundation Institute of Health Engineering led by Dr Thanh Nho Do. Most recently, Do’s team made headlines for the development of their soft robotic gripper which they hope will assist in surgical procedures, carefully lifting organs and delicate tissue while surgeons work. 

Turning their attention to the pliability of textiles, the team have yet again succeeded in re-creating movement found in the natural world. The braided structure and shaping of the textiles have been inspired by forms and functions in human and animal bodies. 

In effect, we have given our smart textiles the expansion and contraction ability in the exact same way as human muscle fibres.

Dr Thanh Nho Do


“We can often find soft cylindrical and tubular shapes such as the oesophagus, colon, blood vessels, or the tube feet of the starfish,” says Do. “Our braided structure could be used to create bio-inspired soft tubular structures, such as medical stents or even artificial organs.” 

“We can turn any passive textile or fabric into an active one by directly embedding our soft artificial muscles into its structure. In effect, we have given our smart textiles the expansion and contraction ability in the exact same way as human muscle fibres,” explains Do. 

When one thinks of the word robotic, rigid structure and automated movements come to mind. Harnessing the fluid nature of fabric, this incredible technology delivers malleable form that can be moulded to synchronise with human motion. 

“Textiles are one of humankind’s oldest technologies,” says Do. “They have amazing mechanical characteristics including flexibility, conformability, stretchability and breathability, making them extremely popular in every aspect of human life.” 

“Traditional robots are effective when working in structured environments, but they are quite rigid and encounter problems dealing with unknown contexts of changing environments,” added Dr Phuoc Thien Phan from the UNSW Medical Robotics Lab.  

So, how can these artificial muscles be used to assist human function? The team has envisioned the material for being used to develop soft exoskeletons that could enable people with disabilities to walk again, or augment the human performance. These smart wearable suits that automatically adapt to the wearer are being likened to Iron Man suits, but which softly conform to the individual’s body. 

“Most existing technologies in that field are still based around rigid robotic suits, but it is our hope that we could create a lightweight, soft exoskeleton that looks and feels just like leggings which can be worn like normal clothing,” says Do. 

The team is hopeful the technology will also be harnessed to create new medical compression devices in clinical and athletic contexts. Athletes use compression garments to recover at a faster rate and reduce muscle soreness after training. Compression devices made from smart textiles could be low-profile, easy to apply, and more user-friendly for patients. 

“Patients with poor blood circulation could benefit from smart garments that contract to apply desired pressure to superficial veins and assist blood supply.” 

Additionally, Do has received funding from the National Heart Foundation of Australia to investigate if the technology could help failing hearts pump blood around the body. 

“We are developing a new soft robotic skin using our smart textile to provide support for failing hearts,” continues Do. “Most existing approaches in this field use mechanical pumps that directly contract the patient’s blood, which can cause infection and other complications. Our approach is to wrap our robotic skin outside the heart surface and then control contraction to augment the heart pumping blood.”  

While the medical potential is promising, the smart textile is also being considered for use in rescue and disaster situations. This is because the fabric can start as flat or passive to enter small spaces, and then be manipulated remotely to activate into a 3D dimensional functioning shape. This could see it gaining access to spaces otherwise blocked.  

As Do further explains, “these structures and robots can be implemented as a lifting mechanism, or legs for robots. Soft robots are needed in various contexts, including rescue missions from bushfires, collapsed buildings or hazardous environments.” 

His team has already been able to create soft robots capable of lifting objects around 346 times the material’s own weight.  

You can read more about Do’s research team’s latest findings in Scientific Reports, Advanced Intelligent Systems, and Soft Robotics journals.