Growing Robots (Biological Inspiration)

The future of robotics may not include printed circuit boards, metal frames and microchips, but instead, the term “robot” may need to be adapted to include semi-living biological creations which are not manufactured on a production line, but instead grown and evolved in labs and incubators. Are humans ready to accept a future where the artificially created life form is biological rather than electromechanical in nature? The question of whether or not an advanced “robot” has rights may relate more to the question of the rights of invertebrates like octopus and jellyfish than to the rights of a toaster or microwave. Can such a “being” be owned, sold, created or destroyed at will?  

Rather than trying to recreate the computational power of a human brain from metals, composites and silicon, would it not be easier to engineer organic cells for this specific purpose? Where will its intelligence come from? So how is robotics technology evolving? The current state of the art technology is not yet at the stage where an entire robot can be grown, but rather the parts which make up a robot, and how they are fabricated is changing. Below you'll find a selectino of links to the most cutting edge robotics technology and research. 

MECHANICS

Currently, materials used to create the structural elements in common robots include metals, plastics and composites. Metals commonly used in robotics include aluminum, steel and titanium and parts are created using milling machines, lathes, lasers, waterjet, casting etc. Plastics of which common examples include ABS, polycarbonate. PET, PVC, PP and others.

Cell
 

Plastics get their shape using molding, laser cutting, vacuum forming, 3D printing etc. though many plastics are still not recyclable. Composites, which are most often carbon fiber or fiberglass where parts are created using molds, cut from sheets etc. Unfortunately composites are not recyclable 

So what might the future look like when it comes to the structure of a robot? Humans have already started growing parts in and on animals (pigs, rats), so is this the future for robotics too? A current trend is to try to create the mechanics, electronics and actuators all at the same time. Manufacturing “all in one” robots where the electronics and mechanics are created together has only recently been possible with advancements in 3D printing, which allow complex shapes and the use of different materials.

Integrating electronics with mechanics:

  • PCB motors - PCB Motor: A smaller and cheaper open source brushless motor (Hackaday)
  • PCB stepper motor - Research log: PCB stepper motor (Kevin Lynagh)
  • Bionic muscles - Bionic Muscles That Are Stronger, Faster, and More Efficient (IEEE)
  • Artificial muscles (miniature) - Giving Bug-Like Bots a Boost: New Artificial Muscles Improve the Performance of Flying Microrobots (Sci Tech Daily)
  • Soft robotics / soft valves - Soft components for the next generation of soft robotics (Harvard School of Engineering)
  • Soft disc actuation - This weird disk robot moves like a beached magikarp (PC Gamer)
  • Magnetic actuation - Robot made of sticky tape and metal powder could crawl on your organs (NewScientist)
  • Light powered soft robots - Light-powered soft robots could suck up oil spills (University of California, Riverside)
  • Pop-up MEMS manufacturing - mini-RCM manipulator developed at Wyss Institute to provide surgical precision (The Robot Report)
  • Origami robots - Curved origami provides new range of stiffness-to-flexibility in robots (Tech Xplore)
  • Structural batteries - A Battery That's Tough Enough To Take Structural Loads (IEEE)
  • Soft batteries - This New Snake-Like Robot Couls Help Save Your Life (Interesting Engineering)
  • 3D printed heart tissue - 3D-printed heart tissue created by retrofitting a robotic arm beats for six months (Notebook Check)
  • Magnetic slime - Robot made of magnetic slime could grab objects inside your body (NewScientist)
  • Biohybrid / cell robots - Robots made of cells blur the line between creature and machine (Science News Explores)
  • Magnetic slime robots - Attack of the Magnetic Slime Robots (Hackaday)
  • Viscous liquid metal - This Viscous Liquid Metal Could Lead to a Revolutionary Robotics Breakthrough (Inverse)
  • Micro RC walking robot - Northwestern engineers invent the world’s smallest remote-controlled walking robots (CNN)
  • Growing cells on a robotic skeleton - Scientists grow cells on a robot skeleton (The Verge)

Some other technology to watch out for:

  • Advanced polymers and organic molecules; Examples might include electroactive, light sensitive and “smart”
  • Artificial cells
  • Soft robots, Bio hybrid robots
  • Programmable matter; Examples include metamaterials, synthetic biology

DECISION MAKING

Will robotic brains always be made using microprocessors made out of metals running computer code, or could they be made of cells or something else? Current research into Synthetic Neural Networks, computational metamaterials, neuromorphic engineering and organic electronics (like Organic Field Effect Transistors (OFETs) and Organic Memrisitive Devices such as Read Only Memories (OM-ROMs)) provide a glimpse into what might be coming. 

Test tubes
 
  • Artificial nervous system - Artificial Nervous Systems Brings Real-Life Touch to Robots (Machine Design)
  • Ebrains - A robot on EBRAINS has learned to combine vision and touch (Newswires)
  • Bio hybrid robots - Army is working on Frankenbots with living tissue to better robot capabilities (Federal News Network)
  • Bio hybrid microbots - Scientists combine robotics with biology to construct biohybrid microrobots (News Medical)
  • Robotic fabric - Researchers develop versatile robotic fabric (TechXplore)
  • Artificial organic neuron - See A Venus Flytrap Controlled By A Computer Brain Chip (Giant Freakin Robot)
  • Neuromorphic computing - Synaptic Transmission in a Simple Reflex Circuit (Neuroscience)
  • Fireflies as inspiration - Researchers hope fireflies will aid robot communication (News Channel 5 Nashville)

SENSING

When asked about what senses humans have, most are able to reply with the five basic being sight, smell, taste, hearing, feeling. However, we have many more than just these, including the sense of gravity, balance, motion, thirst or hunger and many others. If it cannot be sensed, how do you know it exists?

octopus
 

As of 2022, sensors used in robots are often designed as stand-alone products which can be soldered onto PCBs or connected via wires. They often have one function and sensors these days include:

Sensor technology has been evolving rapidly within the last 70 years, creating methods of sensing which could not even be imagined before. So how could sensor technology as a whole change and evolve?

  • Biosensors that breathe - Porous silicone paves the way for wearable biosensors that breathe (New Atlas)
  • Soft gripper - How pole beans inspired this soft robotic gripper (The Robot Report)
  • Soft gripper - Tiny hand-shaped gripper can grasp and hold a snail's egg (TechXplore)
  • Locust ear - Biohybrid robot wired to “hear” using locust’s ear (New Atlas)
  • Soft robots - Playing Mario w/ a 3D Printed Soft Robotic Hand w/ “Integrated Fluidic Circuitry” | Science Advances (YouTube)
  • AI foam (touch) - NUS researchers create AiFoam for robots to interact intelligently with their surroundings (YouTube)
  • Soft temperature sensor - Self-powered stretchable thermometer can be integrated into soft robots, smart clothing (TechXplore)
  • Vision-based haptic sensor - Sensitive robot ‘thumb’ uses computer vision to ‘feel’ touch (TRT World)
  • Retina-inspired sensors - Retina-inspired sensors for more adaptive visual perception (TechXplore)
  • Biological sensor - Israeli scientists create robot that ‘smells’ using biological sensor (i24 News)

Some other evolving sensor technology to watch out for:

  • Metamaterials & Artificial skin
  • Biomechanics
  • Biorobotics
  • Synthetic biology
  • Smart materials (Liquid robots)
  • Bioengineering, cellular engineering, mechanobiology

These artificial creations are more “grown” than “manufactured” and may become the next stage in creating artificial life:

What are your thoughts on the future of robotics? Have a link you'd like to see added? Comment below. Is a link no longer working? Tell us and we'll update or remove it.


Additional Links


Picture Credit: Image by kjpargeter

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