Researchers at the University of Illinois have taken soft robotics to a new level with the creation of walking, muscle-powered biobots controlled via the application of an electric current.
“Biological actuation driven by cells is a fundamental need for any kind of biological machine you want to build,” research leader Rashid Bashir said in a statement. “We’re trying to integrate these principles of engineering with biology in a way that can be used to design and develop biological machines and systems for environmental and medical applications.”
The centimeter-long experimental creations use skeletal muscles similar to the structure of muscles, tendons and bones found in humans and animals. The machines represent a significant advancement over a previous 2012 effort using heart muscles to power robots, which were difficult to control due to the constant firing and pulsing of the cells.
Once an electric current is applied to the bio-based muscular engines in Bashir’s machines, the robots twitch their way across a surface or through liquid. The bots are made of muscle stretched onto soft hydrogels, which can be fired at will.
“Biology is tremendously powerful, and if we can somehow learn to harness its advantages for useful applications, it could bring about a lot of great things,” Bashir said.
“Our goal is for these devices to be used as autonomous sensors. We want it to sense a specific chemical and move towards it, then release agents to neutralize the toxin, for example. Being in control of the actuation is a big step forward toward that goal.”