University of Illinois engineers just showed off a new kind of robot that's half animal, half machine. More specifically, it's a tiny "bio-bot" that's powered by actual muscle but supported by 3D-printed hydro-gels. And the best part is that it can be controlled by pulses of electricity.
While it sounds wildly futuristic, the design of these little, half-centimeter-long bio-bots is actually inspired by how muscles and tendons connect to bone in nature. You might guess that scientists are stretching to see how they can apply modern mechanical knowledge to biological tissue, but it's actually the other way around. "Biology is tremendously powerful," said Rashid Bashir, head of bioengineering at Illinois, in a release. "And if we can somehow learn to harness its advantages for useful applications, it could bring about a lot of great things."
In the near term, the team at Illinois hopes their bio-bots will work like autonomous sensors that can live within the body and provide targeted drug delivery when they sense a specific toxin. They're moving in the right direction, too. This new design improves upon an earlier one that used the spontaneous beating of heart cells to propel the bio-bots forward. However, they had no control over those bio-bots since they would just beat continuously. The ability to control the muscle in the new design is a powerful one. It's like the difference between a wind up toy and a remote controlled car.
Things get really exciting when you start thinking bigger. Imagine what the marriage of biological tissue and synthetic material could mean for the future of prosthetics, for instance. Think bigger. Think Robocop.
Last year, we spoke to futurist Tim Maly about when we might see a full-fledged cyborg. He basically said the complete marriage of man and machine could be achieved through the success of bioengineering. "It probably won't be a mechanical body," Maly told Gizmodo. "It will probably be some biogrown body. And it won't be recognizably to us as Robocop, because it'll already be part of a long line of small improvements." The breakthrough in Illinois, it seems, is one stop in that long line of small improvements. [Univ. of Illinois]