The concept of biomimicry has been around for centuries, taking inspiration from nature, be it processes, models, elements or systems, and incorporating them into our world. Examples range from architectural design based on the internal structure of snails shell and the interlocking burrs which inspired Velcro, to wind turbine blades designed to emulate whale fins and photosynthesis in leaves replicated in solar panels.
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In each of these examples nature provided the inspiration, but now scientists have gone one step further, genetically engineering their own muscle cells. Scientists at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania have grown the cells to flex in response to light which, when put together to form tissue, could be used to create highly articulated, flexible robotic animals.
These robots have the potential to possess the strength and flexibility of their living equivalents, and be used in the fields of medicine, navigation and locomotion, among others.
Ford Professor of Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Harry Asada explained:
“With bio-inspired designs, biology is a metaphor and robotics is the tool to make it happen. With bio-integrated designs, biology provides the materials, not just the metaphor. This is a new direction we’re pushing in biorobotics.”
The decision to use skeletal muscle, those used for running and walking, rather than cardiac or smooth muscle, was not that it was stronger and more powerful, but the fact it required external stimuli. In an organism, neurons act as the stimuli, but electrodes and the necessary power supply would weigh down a small robot.
Accordingly, the scientists turned to lasers and have now become the first to successfully stimulate skeletal muscle ‘wirelessly’, opening up a whole world of possibility in terms of next-generation robotics.
The scientists’ research is due to appear in the science journal Lab on a Chip in the near future.