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Japanese team combines animal cells with robotic joints for 'biohybrid' devices


Two of the robotic joints lift a square frame (Credit: Morimoto, Onoe, Takeuchi, Sci. Robot. 3, eaat4440 (2018))
Two of the robotic joints lift a square frame (Credit: Morimoto, Onoe, Takeuchi, Sci. Robot. 3, eaat4440 (2018))

Researchers moved a step closer to building robotic hands and arms using living muscles after successfully combining animal cells with artificial “skeletons”.

Cyborg-style combinations of robotics and living tissue hold promise for complex and lifelike robots, and anatomically accurate systems for medical testing. Until now, however, muscle tissue mounted on flexible artificial material has been prone to shrinking, making prototypes less sustainable or free-moving than their biological inspirations.

Instead, mechanical engineers and scientists at the University of Tokyo grew animal cells directly on miniature robotic skeletons including rotating joints, anchors for the muscles to attach and electrodes to induce muscle contraction.

“Once we had built the muscles, we successfully used them as antagonistic pairs in the robot, with one contracting and the other expanding, just like in the body,” corresponding author Shoji Takeuchi said. “The fact that they were exerting opposing forces on each other stopped them shrinking and deteriorating, like in previous studies.”

Unlike previous attempts, the muscles did not shrink and the finger-like “biohybrid” robots functioned for over a week. The team tested them by picking up small rings and frames, demonstrating successful flexing of the machines’ joints.

“If we can combine more of these muscles into a single device, we should be able to reproduce the complex muscular interplay that allow hands, arms, and other parts of the body to function," said lead author Yuya Morimoto.

The work was published in Science Robotics.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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