Engineered tissue could enable development of flexible robots
Scientists in the US are hoping to use genetically engineered tissue to develop robots that move with the flexibility of living creatures.
The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Pennsylvania University have created muscle cells that flex in response to light rather than the electrical signals used by the bodies of animals.
The tissue can make a wide range of motions and the researchers now hope to use this ‘wireless’ method of controlling the cells to build more flexible robots that do away with electrodes and a bulky power supply.
One potential use for the technology could be a robotic device for endoscopy that is small and nimble enough to navigate the tight spaces within the body.
Prof Harry Asada of MIT’s mechanical engineering department, who has co-authored a paper on the research for the journal Lab on a Chip, said the group’s design effectively blurs the boundary between nature and machines.
‘With bio-inspired designs, biology is a metaphor, and robotics is the tool to make it happen,’ he said in a statement. ‘With bio-integrated designs, biology provides the materials, not just the metaphor. This is a new direction we’re pushing in biorobotics.’
To test the strength of the engineered tissue, the researchers used a small micromechanical chip containing multiple wells, each housing two flexible posts.
The group attached muscle strips to each post and then stimulated the tissue with light, causing the muscle to contract and pull the posts inward. The scientists then calculated the muscle’s force using each post’s stiffness and bent angle.
Rashid Bashir, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering at Illinois University, said the group’s light-activated muscle may have multiple applications in robotics, medical devices, navigation and locomotion.
He said that exploring these applications would mean the researchers would first have to address a few hurdles. ‘Development of ways to increase the forces of contraction and being able to scale up the size of the muscle fibres would be very useful for future applications.’
According to Asada, a more immediate application may be to use the technology to screen drugs for motor-related diseases: scientists could grow light-sensitive muscle strips in multiple wells and monitor their reaction and the force of their contractions in response to various drugs.