Biohybrid robots, as they are known, are built from living tissue but not in a Frankenstein kind of way as Victoria Webster PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University (US) explains in her Aug. 9, 2016 essay on The Conversation (also on phys.org as an Aug. 10, 2016 news item; Note: Links have been removed),
Researchers are increasingly looking for solutions to make robots softer or more compliant – less like rigid machines, more like animals. With traditional actuators – such as motors – this can mean using air muscles or adding springs in parallel with motors. …
But there’s a growing area of research that’s taking a different approach. By combining robotics with tissue engineering, we’re starting to build robots powered by living muscle tissue or cells. These devices can be stimulated electrically or with light to make the cells contract to bend their skeletons, causing the robot to swim or crawl. The resulting biobots can move around and are soft like animals. They’re safer around people and typically less harmful to the environment they work in than a traditional robot might be. And since, like animals, they need nutrients to power their muscles, not batteries, biohybrid robots tend to be lighter too.
Webster explains how these biobots are built,
Researchers fabricate biobots by growing living cells, usually from heart or skeletal muscle of rats or chickens, on scaffolds that are nontoxic to the cells. If the substrate is a polymer, the device created is a biohybrid robot – a hybrid between natural and human-made materials.
If you just place cells on a molded skeleton without any guidance, they wind up in random orientations. That means when researchers apply electricity to make them move, the cells’ contraction forces will be applied in all directions, making the device inefficient at best.
So to better harness the cells’ power, researchers turn to micropatterning. We stamp or print microscale lines on the skeleton made of substances that the cells prefer to attach to. These lines guide the cells so that as they grow, they align along the printed pattern. With the cells all lined up, researchers can direct how their contraction force is applied to the substrate. So rather than just a mess of firing cells, they can all work in unison to move a leg or fin of the device.
Researchers sometimes mimic animals when creating their biobots (Note: Links have been removed),
Others have taken their cues from nature, creating biologically inspired biohybrids. For example, a group led by researchers at California Institute of Technology developed a biohybrid robot inspired by jellyfish. This device, which they call a medusoid, has arms arranged in a circle. Each arm is micropatterned with protein lines so that cells grow in patterns similar to the muscles in a living jellyfish. When the cells contract, the arms bend inwards, propelling the biohybrid robot forward in nutrient-rich liquid.
More recently, researchers have demonstrated how to steer their biohybrid creations. A group at Harvard used genetically modified heart cells to make a biologically inspired manta ray-shaped robot swim. The heart cells were altered to contract in response to specific frequencies of light – one side of the ray had cells that would respond to one frequency, the other side’s cells responded to another.
Amazing, eh? And, this is quite a recent video; it was published on YouTube on July 7, 2016.
Webster goes on to describe work designed to make these robots hardier and more durable so they can leave the laboratory,
… Here at Case Western Reserve University, we’ve recently begun to investigate … by turning to the hardy marine sea slug Aplysia californica. Since A. californica lives in the intertidal region, it can experience big changes in temperature and environmental salinity over the course of a day. When the tide goes out, the sea slugs can get trapped in tide pools. As the sun beats down, water can evaporate and the temperature will rise. Conversely in the event of rain, the saltiness of the surrounding water can decrease. When the tide eventually comes in, the sea slugs are freed from the tidal pools. Sea slugs have evolved very hardy cells to endure this changeable habitat.
We’ve been able to use Aplysia tissue to actuate a biohybrid robot, suggesting that we can manufacture tougher biobots using these resilient tissues. The devices are large enough to carry a small payload – approximately 1.5 inches long and one inch wide.
Webster has written a fascinating piece and, if you have time, I encourage you to read it in its entirety.