What is an artificial muscle? A comparison of soft actuators to biological muscles

Diego R. Higueras-Ruiz, Kiisa Nishikawa, Heidi Feigenbaum, Michael Shafer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Interest in emulating the properties of biological muscles that allow for fast adaptability and control in unstructured environments has motivated researchers to develop new soft actuators, often referred to as 'artificial muscles'. The field of soft robotics is evolving rapidly as new soft actuator designs are published every year. In parallel, recent studies have also provided new insights for understanding biological muscles as 'active' materials whose tunable properties allow them to adapt rapidly to external perturbations. This work presents a comparative study of biological muscles and soft actuators, focusing on those properties that make biological muscles highly adaptable systems. In doing so, we briefly review the latest soft actuation technologies, their actuation mechanisms, and advantages and disadvantages from an operational perspective. Next, we review the latest advances in understanding biological muscles. This presents insight into muscle architecture, the actuation mechanism, and modeling, but more importantly, it provides an understanding of the properties that contribute to adaptability and control. Finally, we conduct a comparative study of biological muscles and soft actuators. Here, we present the accomplishments of each soft actuation technology, the remaining challenges, and future directions. Additionally, this comparative study contributes to providing further insight on soft robotic terms, such as biomimetic actuators, artificial muscles, and conceptualizing a higher level of performance actuator named artificial supermuscle. In conclusion, while soft actuators often have performance metrics such as specific power, efficiency, response time, and others similar to those in muscles, significant challenges remain when finding suitable substitutes for biological muscles, in terms of other factors such as control strategies, onboard energy integration, and thermoregulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number011001
JournalBioinspiration and Biomimetics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • artificial muscles
  • compliance
  • muscle mechanics
  • muscle models
  • soft robotics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Engineering (miscellaneous)


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