Military Humanoids and Organic Robots

robots reports that defense contractors have introduced ATLAS to the world. He’s a six-two humanoid robot weighing in at 330 pounds.  He can walk up stairs and climb over obstacles in his path. He has arms that can stretch wider than a car and he can stay standing after being hit with heavy weights; qualities that make him a potential stand-in for Rocky Balboa. A human operator guides the sensors, hydraulics, and limbs that can simulate natural motions.

But he’s not the only kid in Robotown. Popular Science recently featured an article on a robot made of cells: A living robot.

The robot’s body is built – layer by layer with a 3-D printer – from hydrogel, the same substance used to make contact lenses. The result is a platform shape about a centimeter thick. It rests on two legs; one shorter than the other to create a cantilever, a lopsided arrangement that is utilized to allow the bot to walk. The longer leg is coated with collagen so that cells can attach to it.

The structure is bathed in a warm, sugary solution filled with a rat’s cardiac cells and fibroblasts. Fibroblasts are the most common cells of connective tissue in animals;  they synthesize collagen with the extracellular matrix that provides structural support to animal cells. The cells on the bot’s underside attach themselves to the collagen.

The robot is stored in an incubator set to 98 degrees, which is the body temperature of a rat. This steam bath maintains the CO2 at a level that keeps the cells alive.

A few days later, cells in the collagen form a sheet and start beating (once per second, the rate of a rat’s heartbeat). The cells contract and expand, as a heart does. The contraction bends the robot’s longer leg, which propels it forward. It moves at 15 millimeters per second—not nearly as fast as ATLAS.

Researchers plan to use bird cells in the future, because birds’ hearts beat five times faster than the hearts of rats. They want to make their horizontal robots more intelligent in order to perform such tasks as assisting in surgery or finding toxins or parasites and squirting them with neutralizing chemicals.

Other research is concerned with robots that are more like butlers than soldiers. This is old stuff to us, having grown up with sci-fi books and films.  Actually the warrior types are also familiar. We could end up with humanoids constructed of mimetic poly-alloys covered in skin, like terminators.

The servant bots described in Popular Science are softer – and kinder. While industrial robots operate more efficiently than humans, they need to be programmed for each specific task, since they don’t have human operators, like ATLAS. And they are dangerous to have around the house.

Researchers are working on machines with soft parts. In other words, bots that are squishier. Malleable materials actually allow the robots to adapt more readily to real-world environments. Their lack of precision compared to industrial kinds is better suited to dealing with credit cards and coffee cups. Since they have difficulty grasping objects without crushing them, they must be trained to grip objects with more meticulousness while at the same time exerting the appropriate pressure. By molding themselves to the shape of the object, they can spread the pressure across a wider area, eliminate concentrations of force on the object and minimize destruction.

They also need to have nicer hands.  One type of manual extensor in development consists of a tube of fabric and ductile two-pronged pincers for a hand. The hand and arm have “bones” made of inflatable bags that are moved by cables; the ‘muscles’ of the apparatus. The approximation of bones and muscles allows the pincers to conform to the object to pick it up.

The arm weighs only half a pound, but it can lift three pounds. That ratio of weight to strength means it is nine times better than a human arm. The arm is also collapsible for easy storage.

The arm-and-hand can now manage tubes and coffee cups. A briefcase-toting robot would be able to blend in with a covey of executives.

There are also robots made of silicone and propelled by air: Softbots come in a variety of shapes, including starfish, octopi and quadrupedal animals. One can even camouflage itself by changing colors with help of dye pumped into its “veins.”

The squishy robots will satisfy particular needs, such as serving as aides in physical therapy. They may vie with cellular robots for positions as surgical assistants, although softbots could hold instruments and even cradle organs.

The goal of both types of research, into cellular and material based bots, is to create organic robots. Living robots, or softbots, may eventually outdo those formed of metal or Legos.  Since they are smaller and more pliant than their humanoid cousins, though, they may not be of much use to the military.

By:  Tom Ukinski

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