Synthetic Brawn

Three robot arms built by teams hailing from Virginia, New Mexico and Switzerland were pitted against high-school student Panna Felsen in a contest of strength held in San Diego in March.

On March 7, 17-year-old high-school student Panna Felsen squared off against three stalwart competitors in the first-ever human-robot arm-wrestling match. Each of the robots was powered by a distinct variety of electroactive polymer, also known as artificial muscle. The contenders varied in size and shape, and their creators’ budgets ranged from $800 to roughly $250,000.

The competition was designed to promote the development of materials that could someday animate prosthetic limbs, shape-shifting airplane wings and a host of other devices. Click ahead to watch live video footage of the event, which was held at the Electroactive Polymer Actuators and Devices Conference in San Diego.

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Round 1: Felsen’s first opponent was the brainchild of Mohsen Shahinpoor, who directs research at Environmental Robots, a small Albuquerque-based company. This arm’s bowling-pin shape may not instill awe, but its core material, ionic polymer metal composite (IPMC), is forceful. IPMCs move slowly, though. Will this robot arm muster what it takes to best the human body?
[00:00:10 †00:00:41]

Round 2: Designed by Swiss government engineers, Felsen’s second opponent â€weighs†in at about 4,000 volts. Propelled by dielectric elastomers, the actuators in this arm can exert up to 30 times the force of a human muscle. The amount of electricity required to keep this beast fed, however, makes using it near the human body a bit tricky. Our heroine dons a rubber glove for protection against the large black box that is her foe.
[00:01:14 †00:01:29]

Round 3: Three undergraduates from Virginia Tech University banded together to forge Felsen’s third opponent. The last of the pack is armed with polyacrylonitrile, a fiber-studded gel that contracts when acid is applied. Felsen wears safety goggles to face down her final opponent.
[00:01:35 †00:02:04]