Bio-Bots: The Glorious Marriage Of Robotics And Biology

Photos courtesy of IsaacMao, Gordontarpley, and torbakhopper via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

Biomimicry is the imitation of nature’s models and systems to solve human problems, according to the Biomimicry Institute, a not-for-profit science organization.

Though the term was coined in 1982, and only popularized in 1997, the idea has existed for much longer. In fact, biomimicry as defined dates back as far as the 1400’s, when Leonardo da Vinci studied the anatomy of birds to design his failed “flight machine.”

More modern (not to mention successful) examples include velcro, which was invented based on the stickiness of plant burrs on animal fur, and e-readers, inspired by butterfly wings.

As this last decade has seen biomimicry rendezvous with robotics, there has been an increasing amount of machines in development (some call them bio-bots) that recreate the natural features of organisms large and small. The result is truly astounding technology, ranging from the super-cute to the nightmare inducing.

1. Whisker Bots


Cats are amazing not only for their apparent reign over the Internet, but because of the powerful biological sensors attached to their faces, also called whiskers, that allow them nightly prowls.

Ali Javey, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, created robo-whiskers that debuted in January of 2014 in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciencse).

By substituting carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles for hair follicles and electric inputs for nerve endings, Javey was able to create lightweight and responsive sensors, AKA robot whiskers, capable of 3D gas flow mapping.

This technology, according to Popular Mechanics, can be integrated into complex systems such as underwater drones and robotic arms for heightened sensory ability.

2. Fishy bots


Speaking of underwater, the unique locomotive functions and bodies of ocean-dwelling creatures have been recreated in many a bot, as well.

For starters, the tough skin of sharks has inspired company Sharklet to create synthetic shark skin capable of repenting bio-fouling (accumulation of sticky bacteria and organisms), an issue that has cost the navy millions. This technology is also being tested to cut fuel burn on German aircrafts.

EU-funded research company SHOAL has even made an intelligent robotic fish, which can autonomously navigate waters to measure chemical composition – a technology that could decrease the need for human divers.

Finally, there’s the gooey jellyfish robot, an undulating creation appropriately dubbed “RoboJelly.” Made by researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas as described in the journal Smart Matter, RoboJelly is fueled by hydrogen and oxygen, meaning it could navigate the ocean without fear of battery-loss. The robot’s synthetic muscle is made of the shape-shifting alloy nickel-titanium.

3. Running bots


Innovative robotic company Boston Dynamics, which was recently bought by Google, is the maker of some terrifyingly powerful robots that mimic the locomotive functions of cheetahs, humans, dogs, and fleas.

Their anthropomorphic robot PETMAN can walk, run, squat, and perform various other human functions designed to test the durability of military clothing under stressful conditions, the Boston Dynamics website says.

Boston Dynamics dubs their Cheetah bot the fastest legged robot in the world, surpassing 29 mph – faster than the fastest man. An upgraded version of this bot called WildCat was tested in 2013; unlike its Cheetah cousin, this guy can run untethered, albeit at half of the speed.

4. Heart cell bots


While BD robots are exciting in their girth and beastly mechanics, smaller bio-bots have been making a splash as well. Sure, WildCat can run (in and out of your night terrors), but can it cure a disease? Probably not.

Mimicking the function of the sperm that created you, tiny swimming bio-hybrid machines were unveiled in January 2014 – the combination of live heart cells and synthetic polymer tails. Scientists hope that this type of technology could swim inside the body to deliver medicine or target cancer in the future.

This bio-bot project is part of a larger Illinois research group that also produced tiny 3D printed walking bots in 2012.

Originally published on February 2, 2014. 

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