Robots may be better at maths than humans. But when it comes to movement even the latest generation of humanoid robots seem stiff and awkward. Every child moves faster, more adroitly and elegantly than a robot. And that is partly due to the flexibility of connective tissue, skin and fasciae. Moreover, natural muscle is a veritable miracle of evolution: by contracting, muscle fibres exert a force, maintain tension, respond to the environment, control movement and self-regenerate. The human’s muscles are the robot’s actuators. Christoph Keplinger and his research group have been inspired by nature. The HASEL technology, or hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic actuators, are “artificial muscles” that can hold their own with their biological models.
Keplinger’s artificial muscles go back to an experiment conducted in the 19th century by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell. With the aid of an electromagnetic field he discovered that oil in a container between two metal plates could be made to move. Electricity has a mechanical effect was the inference drawn at the time. Keplinger has applied the principle to flexible containers like simple freezer bags filled with a dielectric fluid. If voltage is applied to one part of the bag the fluid moves to the other side – a movement that equates to the contraction of a natural muscle. Depending on the shape of the bag and the combination and arrangement of the individual HASEL packages, multiple muscle formations can be built, such as an elephant’s trunk.
At the Else Kröner Fresenius Centre for Digital Health (EKFZ) in Dresden, Christoph Keplinger will become a Humboldt Professor, working on soft robotics at the intersection of medicine and advanced technology. TU Dresden has developed a research focus on “Digital Health” in recent years. It is to be expected that Christoph Keplinger’s groundbreaking inventions will not only revolutionise the future of soft robotics; HASEL actuators could soon be used for medical protheses, as well.
Christoph Keplinger has been selected for the Humboldt Professorship and will now embark on appointment negotiations with the German university that nominated him. If the negotiations succeed, the award will be conferred in 2021.
Nominating University: TU Dresden
Dr. Christoph Keplinger
was born in Austria. He initially read physics in Linz, Austria, where he also completed his doctorate. He spent three and a half years as a postdoc at Harvard University, United States, working in two distinguished chemistry and mechanics research groups. Since 2015, Keplinger has been an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, United States, where he and his research group developed the HASEL actuator and made it ready for technological application. In 2017, he received the prestigious Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.