Muscle Cells Powering Next Generation of Robots


Scientists have recently developed a new generation of tiny robots that are powered by living muscle cells. The team of engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that created the miniscule devices state that they are as biological as they are mechanical. The team of engineers have been experimenting with this type of technology for years, but this newest iteration is the most advanced they have created, observers say.

The gizmos utilize living muscle cells and electrical impulses to propel themselves forward. Study leader Rashid Bashir stated that biological actuation driven by cells is crucial for any biological machine. He continued to illustrate that the goal of his development is to engineer biological machines and systems for medical and environmental applications.

The biological devices are less than a centimeter square. Scientists can direct where the bots go via electrical impulses, and they are designed to mimic the movements of the muscle-bone-tendon complex found in the human body. The frequency of electrical impulses dictates how fast the machine moves.

The team stated that they are interested in utilizing 3D printing to experiment with different designs for the tiny robots. Bashir stated that the utilization of muscle cells always interested him because of their ability to be controlled with external signals. He continued to describe that skeletal muscle should be used when designing a device that functions by sensing a chemical or receiving a certain signal.

By using muscle cells to power this next generation of robots, the machines become more complex, diverse, fluid and adaptable. The mechanisms are hypothesized to become aids during surgeries, drug delivery systems and implants. Bashir has higher ambitions, however; he wants his creation to self-organize and respond to environmental cues independently to forward engineer artificial biological machines and systems.

The “bio-bot” has more control over its movements and a more dramatic range of motion than other mechanical apparati. Carmel Majidi, a robotics professor from Carnegie Mellon who is not involved in the study, stated that this type of skeletal muscle tissue is a great replacement for the conventional motors in robots.

Majidi continued to illustrate the benefits of the technology by citing the possibilities achievable with the new system, including creating artificial muscle limbs for a soft robot that could resemble a jellyfish or octopus and can be used for search and rescue operations, natural disaster relief, underwater explorations or any task that involves squeezing into tight spaces. This technology is known as soft robotics, which is the construction of artificial machines that are made with soft, tissue-like material to maximize adaptability and fluidity.

The next generation of tiny robots are more lifelike due to being powered by muscle cells. Skeletal muscle tissue is what drives human movement by allowing muscle tissue to stretch and contract because of its attachment to the bones, which generates movement. Bashir’s principle goal is to enable this type of movement in an artificial device. The research of the robots was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

By Andres Loubriel

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