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Tiny Bio-Bots Take Big Steps Forward

Bio-Bots created at the University of Illinois are taking, well, tiny steps forward, but it's a big development nevertheless. These 7 millimeter robots are non-electronic biological machines created by a research team, led by U. of I. professor Rashid Bashir.

“The idea is that, by being able to design with biological structures, we can harness the power of cells and nature to address challenges facing society,” said Bashir, an Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering. “As engineers, we’ve always built things with hard materials, materials that are very predictable. Yet there are a lot of applications where nature solves a problem in such an elegant way. Can we replicate some of that if we can understand how to put things together with cells?”

The key to the bio-bots’ locomotion is asymmetry. Resembling a tiny springboard, each bot has one long, thin leg resting on a stout supporting leg. The thin leg is covered with rat cardiac cells. When the heart cells beat, the long leg pulses, propelling the bio-bot forward.

The team uses a 3-D printing method common in rapid prototyping to make the main body of the bot from hydrogel, a soft gelatin-like polymer. This approach allowed the researchers to explore various conformations and adjust their design for maximum speed. The ease of quickly altering design also will allow them to build and test other configurations with an eye toward potential applications.

Arthur C. Clarke told me all about this idea in 1972, in his wonderful novel Rendezvous With Rama; he used the somewhat more compact word biot to describe them:

...now life, with all its infinite possibilities, had come to Rama. If the biological robots were not living creatures, they were certainly very good imitations.

No one knew who invented the word "biot"; it seemed to come into instant use, by a kind of spontaneous generation.
(Read more about Clarke's biots)

The term was used to describe creations like the spider tripod robots that Rama seemed to spontaneously generate for self-cleaning whenever an energy source (a sun) became available.

I'd also point out that science fiction fans (or at least scientifiction fans) were introduced to the idea of "artificial life - living machines" as early as 1926 by Edmond Hamilton in his story Across Space.

Via University of Illinois and Development of Miniaturized Walking Biological Machines.

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