What is a robot? The first image that comes to mind is often a hulk of metal with gears, lights, and computing ability - a hard, solid machine in all sense of the word.
Yet, what if scientists and researchers adopted a new approach? That’s exactly what teams at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have done. By using biology, they were able to develop a new type of robot with soft muscle and nerve tissue. This is far away from any sort of large, metal contraption.
What are These New Robots, and What Do They Do?
UIUC’s new robot is known as a microscopic biohybrid robot. Although that seems like a mouthful, it can be broken down into simpler terms. Microscopic biohybrid robots are just small robots that combine biological tissue with machinery.
The first application of this type of robot was back in 2014. UIUC’s Taher Saif, a mechanical science and engineering professor, and Rashid Bashir, a bioengineering professor, led research teams to see if biological tissue could be used to make biological-based robots (biobots).
Their project produced a biobot capable of swimming and walking through self-propulsion. However, the most exciting aspect was that these biobots were completely powered by the cardiac (heart) muscle cells of rats.
Despite the great achievement of creating a working biobot, Saif, Bashir, and their teams were far from finished. As Taher Saif described when discussing the original project, “That generation of singled-tailed bots utilized cardiac tissue that beats on its own, but they could not sense the environment or make any decisions.”
Therefore, even though the bots were successfully powered by the cardiac muscle cells, they did not have the ability to respond to their surroundings. This challenge is something the teams at UIUC have worked to tackle in more recent years.
The latest microscopic biohybrid robots from UIUC, have a key component their first biobots did not. In order to help the biobots sense and adapt to their environment, the teams added optogenetic* nerve cells. These neurons are sensitive to light; when exposed, they are able to activate the cardiac muscle cells.
*Optogenetics is the biological technique that scientists use to control cells through light.
The Future of Microscopic Biohybrid Robots
Although this technology is still developing, one day it could help lead to advancements in material technology and even medicine. Robots and computer science are paving the way to a technological future. Projects like the microscopic biohybrid robots from UIUC bring us one step closer to intelligent, living machinery.