We've put efficient robots to work in industries from factories to emergency situations, yet machines' bulky, blocky bodies seriously limit their range of motion. But what if the soft androids of the future could move like humans?
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have created a polymer gel that mimics euglena mutabilis, a single-cell organism that uses energy to change its shape autonomously in order to move. The bio-inspired gel signals that synthetic creations can also move the way living things do, despite not having muscles to expand and contract.
This could lead to a material that could eventually turn choppy C-3P0 movement into Cylon humanoid grace (hopefully without the "destroy all humans" directive).
Euglena "provided inspiration for our work due to their elegant motion," said Dr Anna Balazs, who coauthored the study, published in Nature's Scientific Reportslast week.
The polymer gel could become a key robot-building ingredient. Not only could it improve range of motion, machines may also become way lighter, trading hard, heavy, stiff metals and alloys for softer, squishier materials. Polymer gels could be the first step toward developing such biomimetic material.
Picture: Euglena mutabilis under a microscope, via Wikimedia Commons
To mimic the mobility found in euglena, the team used two polymer gels — one that reacts to light and moves autonomously, and one that pulses with energy in the absence of outside stimuli. When these two gels were combined, and when they were exposed to light in just the right place, the gels moved. The researchers could even get the gels to move in specific patterns.
On top of inspiring human-like movement in robots, mimicking euglenacould solve another problem with robots: that they can't store and use their own energy. The gel could help develop robots that generate their own internal power using self-sustained propulsion. That could still be a way's out, however. A initial goal is be the creation of smaller scale soft robotics to carry out chemical reactions on a microscopic level.
In fact, the euglena's self-generating energy has gotten a lot of press in Japan for applications beyond robotics. Japanese researchers are exploring the organism's nutrient dense nature (it packs in 59 varieties) and its photosynthetic powers, which produce biofuel that could be used for jets.
"It harvests light to enable its functionality," Balazs said. "In particular, its contains chloroplasts, and can utilise light to generate its energy. In effect, it is between an animal and a plant." So not only does it move autonomously like an animal, but it can photosynthesise (thus generating energy) like a plant.
We'll miss The Robot dance, but we look forward to our manmade friends tackling The Worm.