The dawn of biohybrid robotics is here.
The new field of biohybrid robotics involves the use of living tissue amalgamated with robotic structures. Muscle is one such potential component of these robots, hopefully providing independent energy for movement and function. However, in efforts to integrate living muscle into these machines, there have been problems with the power these muscles exert and their rapid deterioration. Now, a study from researchers at the University of Tokyo develops a new method which progresses individual muscle precursor cells to fully functioning skeletal muscle tissues. The team state they incorporated these muscles into a biohybrid robot as antagonistic pairs mimicking those in the body and continued muscle function for over a week. The study is published in the journal Science Robotics.
Previous studies show rapid progress in biohybrid robotics with skeletal muscle tissues formed on a flexible substrate enabling various types of locomotion powered by muscle tissue. However, it has been difficult to achieve high levels of both large and long-term actuations of the skeletal muscle tissues because of their spontaneous shrinkage through the course of the tissue culture. The current study amalgamates skeletal muscle with a robotic substrate to perform task whilst mimicking a human movement.
The current study constructs a robotic skeleton on which to install the pair of functioning muscles. For the living muscle part of the robot the lab used hydrogel sheets containing muscle precursor cells called myoblasts, holes to attach these sheets to the robot skeleton anchors, and strips to encourage the muscle fibers to form in an aligned manner. Results show that the muscle fibers successfully act as antagonistic pairs in the robot, with one contracting and the other expanding, just like in the body. Data findings show as they exert opposing forces on each other they don’t shrink and/or deteriorate.
The team also tested the robots in different applications, including having one pick up and place a ring, and having two robots work in unison to pick up a square frame. Results show the robots perform these tasks well, with activation of the muscles leading to flexing of a finger-like protuberance at the end of the robot by around 90°. Data findings show that, using this antagonistic arrangement of muscles, these robots can mimic the actions of a human finger.
The team surmise they have developed a biohybrid robot powered by an antagonistic pair of skeletal muscle tissues which successfully demonstrated the biomimetic manipulation of objects. For the future, the researchers state that if they can combine more of these muscles into a single device, it should be possible to reproduce the complex muscular interplay which allow hands, arms, and other parts of the body to function.