As if the line between human and machine wasn't already blurry enough, researchers in Tokyo have developed a new method for using living rat muscle tissue in robotics. The "biohybrid" design, described today in the journal Science Robotics, simulates the look and movements of a human finger. Video shows how it bends at the joint, picks up a loop, and places it down. It's a seemingly simple movement but one that researchers say lays the groundwork for more advanced--and even more lifelike--robots. "If we can combine more of these muscles into a single device, we should be able to reproduce the complex muscular interplay that allows hands, arms, and other parts of the body to function," says study author Shoji Takeuchi, a mechanical engineer at the University of Tokyo.
The biobot developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign couples engineered skeletal muscle tissue to a 3D printed flexible skeleton. Although robotic humanoids now perform backflips and autonomous drones fly in formation, even the most advanced robots are relatively primitive when compared with living machines. The running, jumping, swimming, and flying creatures that cover our planet's surface have long inspired engineers. Yet a subset of researchers are not just taking tips from living creatures. These roboticists, computer scientists, and bioengineers are combining artificial materials with living tissue, or making machines entirely from living cells.
Robots have walked on legs for decades. Today's most advanced humanoid robots can tramp along flat and inclined surfaces, climb up and down stairs, and slog through rough terrain. But despite the progress, legged robots still can't begin to match the agility, efficiency, and robustness of humans and animals. Existing walking robots hog power and spend too much time in the shop. All too often, they fail, they fall, and they break. For the robotic helpers we've long dreamed of to become a reality, these machines will have to learn to walk as we do.
Adaptive behaviors ranging from self-assembly to self-healing showcase the ability of such systems to sense and adapt to dynamic environments based on signaling between living cells. This signaling takes on many forms--biochemical, mechanical, and electrical--and uncovering it has become as much the purview of regenerative medicine as of fundamental biology. We cannot reverse-engineer native tissues if we do not understand the fundamental design rules and principles that govern their assembly from the bottom up (1). Movement is fundamental to many living systems and driven primarily by skeletal muscle in human bodies. Disease or damage that limits the functionality of skeletal muscle severely affects human health, mobility, and quality of life.
Scientists have developed what may be the slowest first responder ever. On Monday, researchers from Case Western Reserve University unveiled a "biohybrid" robot powered by sea slug muscles. The device, researchers say, could perform tasks that are difficult for traditional robots, and even take on search missions. "We're building a living machine – a biohybrid robot that's not completely organic, yet," said Victoria Webster, a PhD candidate who led the research, in a statement. Biorobotic philosophies – including, but not limited to the notion that "living machines" could perform tasks that aren't possible for organic organisms or totally man-made devices – have inspired new lines of research in many fields.