Researchers Create Walking, Muscle-Powered Biobots

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In today’s mildly squiggy but kind of cool news, we learn that researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created tiny robots that walk when current is applied to their bio-based muscular engines. The tiny robots can twitch their way across a surface or through a liquid.

“Biological actuation driven by cells is a fundamental need for any kind of biological machine you want to build,” said study leader Rashid Bashir in a release. “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. 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.”

These machines use muscle cells to move. In 2012 researchers used rat heart cells to create a primitive version of this system but the cells kept firing, allowing little control. Now they are attempting to use real muscle cells that can be fired at will and they are also planning to at neurons that can control the rate of firing and direction of the robot. The centimeter-sized bots are made of soft hydrogels onto which the muscle has been stretched.

The researchers see many uses for the robots – besides the obvious one of scaring your friends with a weird muscular roboslug – including toxin neutralization and the improvement of biological control systems.

“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,” said Bashir.