Given Disney’s amusement parks are packed full of audio-animatronic characters, it only makes sense that the company’s research division would be hard at work finding ways to make them even more lifelike. Researchers may have found a cheap solution to making artificial muscles, using conductive sewing thread you can find in any fabric store.
Synthetic muscles have long been kind of a holy grail in robotics research. They allow robots to move more fluidly, faster, and with greater strength than actuators and servos can. There’s a reason our own bodies are filled with them. But finding materials that can continuously expand and contract without stretching out and weakening over time has been very difficult. But Disney may have moved one step closer using store-bought materials.
The team at Disney Research starts with conductive sewing thread that’s then twisted repeatedly until it forms thicker strands of coils, not unlike a guitar string, just a little cruder. As these strands are heated and cooled (notice the three cooling fans on the forearm there?) the cables contract and expand just like a human muscle, which in turns pulls the fingers causing the artificial hand to close.
The researchers initially set out to find a low-cost way to make artificial muscles, but their creations were also able to generate controlled forces in less than 30 milliseconds which actually outperforms what human muscles are capable of. Which means that one day the robots in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents won’t only be even more lifelike, they’ll actually be faster and stronger than you.