Thanks to recent technological advancements, bio-inspired robotics is currently taking the world by storm. Last year, for instance, we talked about Pleurobot, an amazingly versatile robot that mimics the movements of a salamander. Around the same time, a team of South Korean scientists created an innovative robotic insect that behaves similar to actual water striders. As part of a new project, researchers from Harvard University have crafted a spectacular synthetic stingray that is in fact powered by a rat’s heart.
The brainchild of Kit Parker, a bioengineer at the university’s Wyss Institute, the cyborg creature is designed to enhance our understanding of the inner workings of the heart, including the way it pumps blood to different parts of the body. The contraption, the scientists believe, could also usher in a new generation of highly-advanced synthetic robots. Speaking about the concept, which was originally conceived after a visit to the aquarium with his daughter, Parker said:
She was trying to pet a stingray and she put her hand in the water and the stingray quickly moved away from her hand in a very elegant way. It struck me like a thunderbolt that I could build that system in the musculature, and that it would look very much like the [muscular] layer of the heart.
Working alongside fellow scientist Sung-Jin Park, Parker went about the task of taking apart a rat, and then rebuilding it as a robotic stingray. Weighing only around 10 gm, the cyborg is of a size comparable to that of a small coin. According to the team, its body features a gold skeleton covered with a thin, stretchable polymer. Designed to resemble a real stingray in shape as well as the structure of fins, the contraption was coated with as many as 200,000 live heart cells of a rat, also known as cardiomyocytes.
To enhance the robot’s mobility, the researchers genetically modified the cells, making them more sensitive to light-based stimuli. When exposed to light of particular wavelengths, the cardiomyocytes were found to contract, thereby pushing the fins in downward motions. This in turn allows the synthetic stingray to move through water. As the scientists point out, the unique design of the gold skeleton makes it possible for the hybrot to store some of the energy generated during the contractions, which is later used to move the fins upward. Parker added:
I think we’ve got a biological life form here. A machine, but a biological life form. I wouldn’t call it an organism, because it can’t reproduce, but it certainly is alive. We turned a rat into a light guided stingray. Hell, all [people] need to know is that this is the coolest thing they’re going to see all year.
Recently published in the Science journal, the research could pave the way for sophisticated soft tissue to robots. What is more, it could enable marine biologists to improve their understanding of stingrays and the mechanisms used by these mysterious sea creatures to swim. The synthetic version, according to the researchers, is sensitive to changes in the pulse and frequency of incident light. These changes are used to alter its speed and direction of motion, making it capable of moving around obstacles. At present, the team at Harvard is learning more about the workings of the heart, which they believe could lead to more advanced synthetic pumps. Parker was reported saying:
I want to build an artificial heart, but you’re not going to go from zero to a whole heart overnight. This is a training exercise. The heart’s built the way it is for a reason. And we’re trying to replicate as much of that function as we possibly can.
Via: Popular Mechanics