Swimming cyborg depends on living cells to move

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Enlarge / The cyborg, showing off its gold skeleton. (credit: Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach)

Biology has given robot makers lots of good ideas about how to solve certain problems, like how to squeeze into tight spaces, how to conserve energy for flying, and how to move around without a skeleton. But now it’s giving us the raw materials for building a robot—or perhaps more properly a cyborg. Researchers have not only based the design of their robot on animals like skates and rays, but have used muscle cells to power its movements and light-sensitive proteins to replace its circuitry.

Skates and rays (technically batoid fish) are distinct from other cartilaginous fish in that they have a largely flat body plan and generate propulsion by undulating their bodies rather than by flapping fins. This undulation is a very simple way to generate locomotion, but it’s highly energy-efficient and lends itself to soft-bodied robotics. It’s also relatively easy to steer, simply by alternating the frequency of undulations on the right and left sides of the body. So the builders (a huge US-Korean team) of the new robot used this as inspiration for their new design.

To mimic this type of fish, the authors built the body out of a flexible polymer called PDMS. Internally, they added a flexible metallic skeleton made of gold so that once an undulation was done, the body would flex back into its original shape.

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