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Tiny Walking Robots Powered by Muscle Cells

These robots are made of itty bitty little pieces of you

2 min read
Tiny Walking Robots Powered by Muscle Cells
Illustration: UIUC

Most robots are powered by electrical motors that are big, bulky, heavy, and if they break, you have to replace them. Animals, on the other hand, use a biological motor—a muscle—that also requires electricity, but is far more efficient and, given a chance, can repair itself. We're just starting to be able to manipulate biological structures like these in clever enough ways to let us harness their awesomeness, and engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have worked them into a tiny little "bio-bot" that uses muscle cells to walk.

The backbone of this robot is made of hydrogel, although it acts more like a combination of bone and tendon, providing both structure and flexibility. The muscle is anchored to hydrogel feet, and when external electrical impulses cause the muscle to contract, the feet get pulled together, and the bio-bot walks.

This is all very early stage research, and what's most exciting is how these little guys can be evolved into more sophisticated robots with all the things that you'd want in a robot. Like, say, steering, which could be accomplished by integrating neurons that would drive separate muscles and respond to chemical gradients or changes in light. Long term, things might get even cooler:

“It's only natural that we would start from a bio-mimetic design principle, such as the native organization of the musculoskeletal system, as a jumping-off point,” said graduate student Caroline Cvetkovic, co-first author of the paper. “This work represents an important first step in the development and control of biological machines that can be stimulated, trained, or programmed to do work. It's exciting to think that this system could eventually evolve into a generation of biological machines that could aid in drug delivery, surgical robotics, 'smart' implants, or mobile environmental analyzers, among countless other applications.”

[ LIBNA ] via [ UIUC ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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