Dec 14, 2017 | By Tess

Researcher Vickie Webster-Wood and her team from the Case Western Reserve University have published a paper proposing a comprehensive lexicon and taxonomy for the blossoming field of “organismal engineering,” which combines robotics with tissue engineering for the creation of “biohybrid robots”.

Researcher Vickie Webster-Wood

Webster-Wood, who is a post-doctorate researcher at the university’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, gained prominence in her field last year for having developed 3D printed biohybrid robots that could swim.

The small robots, made from sea-slug muscle attached to a 3D printed polymer base, could be made to swim by applying an electrical pulse to them when placed in a sugar-water solution. Though a small-scale example of a biohybrid robot, the 3D printing research project gave Webster-Wood a credible platform in the field, which she is now using to unify it.

The goal of their new research project is to help researchers from all over the globe be on the same page in the field of biohybrid robots (formally dubbed organismal engineering), which is a promising realm of study that combines tissue engineering with robotics, often with the help of 3D printing technologies.

“This is a very young field, really… and right now, there is no consistency in the vocabulary and really no universal lexicon," explained Webster-Wood. “There has been, over the last decade, an increase in developments of tissue engineering, in the ability to fabricate different things out of living materials. And while there has been parallel acceleration in robotics, researchers from these two fields tend to use different vocabularies.”

Webster-Wood proposes an “organizational key” for discussing and categorizing biohybrid robots which is based on four main points, each of which was selected because it is shared by both robots and living creatures.

The categories are: structure, which references the metal or plastic frame of a robot as well as the skeleton or body of an organic being; actuators, or what makes the structure move, for example, a motor (robotic) or a muscle (organic); sensors, which could be a camera or range finder on a robot and the skin, eyes, or other sensory organs for a living creature; and the controller, which is the robot’s computer or the brain of living creatures.

In addition to these four important terms, the researchers also introduce an “organized compedium of terms” to more effectively describe biohybrid and organic robots. “You've got to have those things in place,” commented Webster-Woods. “That way, people aren't inventing a wheel and then saying ‘Oh, a dozen other people have already invented that!’.”

3D printed sea-slug biohybrid robot

“To our knowledge, this is the first time an article has been published that looks at organic materials being used for all four of these components and how that could lead to completely organic robots,” she added. “It's not as sensational as sea slugs, but we think it will be just as important.”

Organismal engineering and biohybrid robots are part of a growing trend in science and engineering to use organic, natural elements to create new products and devices. More than just using nature as inspiration, however, biohybrid robots actually integrate organic elements, such as muscle tissues and cells to create animal-like and eco-friendly robots.

3D bioprinting technology, which often consists of depositing cell-infused hydrogels into a particular structure, is thus very in line with organismal engineering developments and could potentially be used to apply cells onto a robotic frame. In Webster-Wood’s case, she used 3D printing to create a polymer structure (including arms and body) for her swimming robots, which was combined with sea-slug muscle cells.

While the field is still nascent, it will be fascinating to see how biohybrid robot research advances in the near future, how 3D printing is used in the field, and whether Webster-Wood’s new lexicon for organismal engineering will stick.

Her paper, entitled “Organismal engineering: Toward a robotic taxonomic key for devices using organic materials,” was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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