Illinois Researchers Develop Muscle-Powered "Biobots"

Researchers have built robots with 3-D-printed limbs laced with organic skeletal muscles that can be controlled remotely with electric charges.

by / July 14, 2014

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed the latest iteration of the biobot — a robot comprised of 3-D-printed limbs laced with organic skeletal muscles that operators can control remotely by stimulating the tissue with electric charges.

They demonstrated a group of their creations in June. The tiny automatons, which are less than a centimeter in size and consist of hydrogels and living cells, have the potential to alter robotic engineering considerably as they grow in sophistication.
Prof. Rashid Bashir, the university's head of bioengineering, said in a university press release that biology could transform machinery if the scientific community learned how to harness it.
"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," he said.
This isn't the first time Bashir and his team have gained attention for merging muscle and machine. In 2012, they grabbed headlines for designing miniature walking robots containing neonatal rat heart cells. They used lasers to carve patterns on photosensitive liquid material, slice it into layers, and process it in a 3-D printer. They added a sheet of automatic, spontaneously contracting heart cells, and the beats pushed the robots' legs through a liquid environment.
However, the heart cells in that experiment beat independently, so the scientists developed this year's biobots with movements that could be controlled. They jolt the new creations' muscle fibers with electricity to make them contract, which forces the 3-D printed "bones" to move. Scientists control the robots' speed by altering the frequency of pulses.
The biobots' design is modeled after the muscle-bone-tendon configuration common in most living creatures. The 3-D components are the backbone, and the muscle tissue moves them when charged.
The system is very basic at the moment, but the scientists hope to design more sophisticated machines in the future. Plans include stimulating neurons in biobots so they can be steered in different directions, and building biobots of different shapes.
Successive iterations of biobots could one day aid in environmental clean-up and lead to the next generation of medical implants for patients in need.
"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," graduate student Caroline Cvetkovic said in a press release. "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."
Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.