Aquatic prototype robot could find use in medical applications

An ambitious EPSRC project aims to create an entirely new multi-cellular robotic organism that has biological muscles as well as microelectronics.

The researchers hope to create a 1cm-long aquatic prototype robot that will respond to things such as light and chemical gradients — with possible medical applications in mind.

‘The project is jointly funded by the US and the UK governments as highly risky transformative research related to synthetic biology,’ said Dr Daniel Frankel of Newcastle University. ‘It has an 80 per cent chance of failure.’

The idea of interfacing biological cells and tissue with electronics and machines — the ‘cyborg’ scenario — has been attempted previously. However, using wires or electrodes to directly connect with cells can damage them and does not produce a signal of sufficient speed or quality.

‘You’re limited by material development; you need to try and work out what material interfaces best with cells and tissue,’ Frankel said. ‘What’s really different about our research is that we’re altering the cells and tissue to interface with the machines and electronics using genetic engineering.’

So rather than trying to innervate the muscles with direct wire contacts, they have created muscle cells that respond to light from an array of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) flickering in a wave-like motion to contract the cells.

The precise pattern is determined by a CPU microprocessor, modelled on the sea lamprey brain network, which has already been created by US collaborators at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As well as movement function, Frankel is working on primary sensing devices — ‘eyes and a nose’ — again based on genetically engineered cells that can respond to either light or chemical gradients.

‘The cell detects the light, produces this signal, which goes to the CPU, the CPU then feeds the swimming pattern generator to the LEDs, the LEDs flash and the muscles contract in the correct way to move the robot away,’ Frankel said.

The team is now developing each of the separate components independently, which will take around two and a half years. It hopes to integrate them all in a robot in around five years’ time.

The core skeletal form of the robot body will be based on materials similar to hydrogel and the polyimide Kapton and will be fabricated using electrohydrodynamic jet (E-jet) printing.

The muscles themselves will be powered by mitochondria metabolising external sources of glucose, while a small battery will still be required for the CPU and the LEDs.

‘All of that is integrated together and is all communicating, so you almost have a multi-cellular organism,’ Frankel said.