BY BRANDI VINCENT, STAFF CORRESPONDENT, APRIL 22, 2021
A scientist from the Army Research Lab gave a glimpse into its early work with biohybrid robotics.
Looking to pave the way for the production of nimble robots that can move more like living creatures than bulky androids, Army Research Laboratory scientists are embarking on fresh, high-risk studies in biohybrid robotics that could eventually fuse organic tissue with machines.
“This is wholly new to the lab, and the field itself is still relatively young. The publications associated with the first idea of successfully integrating muscle tissue or cells into some larger architecture to control motion with that same biological device didn’t really start until after 2000—and really spooled up in the early 2010s. So it’s very young, even as a discipline,” explained Dr. Dean Culver, a research scientist at the laboratory. “And that kind of gave us an opportunity to see how we could help move it forward and what expertise that we had that we could levy in that direction to really make an impact.”
In a recent interview, he briefed Nextgov on this future-facing research and the breathtaking applications it could spur.
A Potential Huge Step Forward
Culver studied mechanical engineering, and while in graduate school at Duke University, he became increasingly interested in energy management, and what he deemed the complicated ways beings get motion out of stored energy.
“After I graduated, one of the natural extensions of that is ‘Hey, how exactly do muscles work? How do organisms store energy and turn that into motion?’” he noted. “And it turns out that we knew less about the answer to that question than I had originally anticipated. So, there are obvious applications of that in robotics, and the design of mechanisms and new vehicles, for the Army. That brings us to today—I’m still working on that problem.”
It’s a complex pursuit that Culver has been tackling with the lab since about 2017. Ultimately, he envisions being able to give engineers the capability to design devices that last a long time, are really resilient, quiet—and don’t run hot.
“And those are all things that biological systems offer,” Culver explained.
Some existing, state-of-the-art robots that the Army uses can carry things across various locations, or record what their surrounding environments look like. They typically have four wheels, are a foot or two in height, and move over paved terrain at about two miles per hour. But there’s an issue, according to Culver, who noted that researchers are reaching a point where they’re experiencing diminishing returns in the design of these robots with wheels as their primary locomotor, and batteries as their centralized power system.
“We look at a wolf in nature: It probably weighs about the same, can pull much more and can travel hundreds of miles without really eating, take a nap and do the same thing the next day,” he said. “There’s a huge performance disparity between those two things. And if we can offer the ability for robots to go out on these long missions, based on these design principles that we can understand from observing nature—that’s a huge step forward.”