Researchers at Case Western Reserve University are making progress towards their goal of developing a completely organic robot.
The team, led by PhD student Victoria Webster, combined tissue from a sea slug with 3D-printed components to create what they call “biohybrid” robots that can crawl like sea turtles on the beach, according to a news release from the school.
“We’re building a living machine — a biohybrid robot that’s not completely organic — yet,” Webster said.
The researchers used a muscle from the mouth of a California sea slug called aplysia californica and connected it to the robot’s 3D-printed polymer arms and body. They opted for the sea slug because of its adaptability: it can withstand major temperature and salinity changes unlike mammal and bird muscles, which are much more finicky.
The result of their work: “a robot that can manage different tasks than an animal or a purely manmade robot could,” according to Roger Quinn, engineering Professor and Director of Case Western Reserve’s Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory.
The robot moves as the muscle, controlled by an external electrical field, contracts and releases, swinging the 3D-printed arms back and forth. The thing is super slow — it only moves about 0.4 centimeters a minute — but it moves.
In the future, the researchers say that swarms of these biohybrid robots could be unleashed to locate the source of a toxic leak in a pond, for instance, or search the ocean floor for a black box flight recorder.
“We want the robots to be compliant, to interact with the environment,” Webster said. “One of the problems with traditional robotics, especially on the small scale, is that actuators — the units that provide movement — tend to be rigid.”
Fully organic robots would be even better for these tasks. If they were lost after a mission, no sweat: the researchers reckon they won’t cost much or pollute the environment with metals or chemicals.