Wearable assistive devices are the future of rehabilitation therapy and bionic limb technologies. Traditional electric, hydraulic, and pneumatic actuators can provide the precise and powerful around-the-clock assistance that therapists cannot deliver. However, they do so in the confines of highly controlled factory environments, resulting in actuators too rigid, heavy, and immobile for wearable applications. In contrast, biological skeletal muscles have been designed and proven in the uncertainty of the real world. Bioinspired artificial muscle actuators aim to mimic the soft, slim, and self-sensing abilities of natural muscle that make them tough and intelligent. Fluidic artificial muscles are a promising wearable assistive actuation candidate, sharing the high-force, inherent compliance of their natural counterparts. Until now, they have not been able to self-sense their length, pressure, and force in an entirely soft and flexible system. Their use of rigid components has previously been a requirement for the generation of large forces, but reduces their reliability and compromises their ability to be comfortably worn. We present the unobtrusive integration of dielectric elastomer (DE) strain and pressure sensors into a soft Peano fluidic muscle, a planar alternative to the relatively bulky McKibben muscle. Characterization of these DE sensors shows they can measure the full operating range of the Peano muscle: strains of around 18% and pressures up to 400 kPa with changes in capacitance of 2.4 and 10.5 pF respectively. This is a step towards proprioceptive artificial muscles, paving the way for wearable actuation that can truly feel its environment.
Robotic orthoses have the potential to provide effective rehabilitation while overcoming the availability and cost constraints of therapists. These orthoses must be characterized by the naturally safe, reliable, and controlled motion of a human therapist's muscles. Such characteristics are only possible in the natural kingdom through the pain sensing realized by the interaction of an intelligent nervous system and muscles' embedded sensing organs.
McKibben fluidic muscles or pneumatic muscle actuators (PMAs) are a popular orthosis actuator because of their inherent compliance, high force, and muscle-like load-displacement characteristics. However, the circular cross-section of PMA increases their profile. PMA are also notoriously unreliable and difficult to control, lacking the intelligent pain sensing systems of their biological muscle counterparts.
Here the Peano fluidic muscle, a new low profile yet high-force soft actuator is introduced. This muscle is smart, featuring bioinspired embedded pressure and soft capacitive strain sensors. Given this pressure and strain feedback, experimental validation shows that a lumped parameter model based on the muscle geometry and material parameters can be used to predict its force for quasistatic motion with an average error of 10 - 15N. Combining this with a force threshold pain sensing algorithm sets a precedent for flexible orthosis actuation that uses embedded sensors to prevent damage to the actuator and its environment.