Crawling Machine Is Half Animal, Half 3D-Printed Robot

Victoria Webster
Victoria Webster / Victoria Webster

Let’s face it: We’re all cyborgs these days. Our phones have become extensions of our bodies, and we wear devices to track our vital signs, movement, and sleep. We even embed microchips in our pets. Yet none of us have gone quite as far as one research team's new sea slug robot. The researchers will discuss their progress on the minuscule half-animal, half-machine invention at the 2016 Living Machines conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.

We know what you’re thinking: Why? Is this just one of those things scientists do to see if they can? Nope. As it turns out, the biohybrid robot, as it’s called, has been designed for a very practical purpose: combing the floors of oceans and ponds to look for lost objects (like a downed airplane's black box) and chemical disturbances. By combining an aquatic creature’s beautifully evolved seaworthiness with the control and customization of a machine, the team has produced features and capabilities that neither robot nor animal could accomplish on its own.

Project lead Victoria Webster is a Ph.D. student at Case Western University. To conceptualize, build, and test the two-inch-long robot, Webster teamed up with an impressive team of biologists, engineers, robotics researchers, and fabrication experts from across her university. "We want the robots to be compliant, to interact with the environment," Webster said in a press statement.

First, they had to find the right animal. They settled on the California sea hare (Aplysia californica), a hefty sea slug found in coastal waters from northern California into Mexico. Despite its soft appearance, A. californica is a rugged beast, with durable muscles and cells packed with defensive toxins and colored ink.

Genny Anderson via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The animal parts of the robot, as shown in the photo up top, are engineered from the sea hare’s mouth muscles. The current iteration of the robot is dependent on an external electrical input, but the researchers say that future versions will incorporate the sea hare’s own muscle-powering ganglia and brain cells.

"With the ganglia, the muscle is capable of much more complex movement, compared to using a manmade control, and it's capable of learning," Webster said.

The next step was integrating robotic pieces with the sea slug’s mouth parts. The team used the mouth’s weird natural shape, which already had two arm-like appendages. Around these appendages they attached a 3D-printed shell. In the future, they hope to do away with the artificial pieces altogether, replacing them with a supportive scaffolding engineered from living sea slug collagen. They note that, unlike machines made of metal or plastic, an all-organic robot that wandered off would naturally break down or be eaten, rather than adding to the harmful litter on the sea floor.

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