Looking to Nature for the Next Generation of Robots (Part 2)

This research in mimicking the capabilities of tobacco hornworms has expanded to include developing a completely new generation of robots.  Modern robots are typically rigid and stiff because they are derived from early robots optimized for factory assembly lines. Professor Trimmer wants to change that.  He sees a robot that is not only soft and flexible, but also made from natural materials.  He is currently researching methods in which a laboratory can “grow” a robot from proteins, lipids, and sugars.  He imagines a process that grows insect-like cells (known for their tough and tolerant qualities) in a bioincubator that would allow someone to simply add a small microchip in order to create a lightweight, efficient, and practical robot.  Another advantage to this plan is that a robot made of fats, lipids, and sugars can theoretically provide its own energy by feeding off itself.  This is advantageous because the energy content of natural materials such as fats far exceeds the power density of typical power systems such as batteries.

Professor Trimmer sees a wide array of applications for his research, such as surveying animals at the top of the canopy with a light and nimble robot, or clearing a minefield with a swarm of small, efficient, and relatively cheap robots.  I found the most intriguing possibility to be finding people trapped by debris after a natural disaster.  Imagine a trailer filled with small, biodegradable, soft body robots that can be easily deployed in dangerous situations.  These robots could snake through the debris and look for signs of human life. Then, they could send a signal to emergency personnel indicating the location of a survivor.  A common problem with current approaches to this problem is that oftentimes survivors of the natural disaster are unable to be freed in a timely manner and end up dying due to lack of water or food.  Robots could also theoretically be designed to carry water or other substances to trapped survivors and give rescue teams more time to reach them.  This is just a single possibility among the infinite implications this research could have for our future.

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Tufts University Biology Department, http://bit.ly/2evftIG

Through his research, Professor Trimmer has encountered a fair share of setbacks, but he has always managed to push through. He believes that the two most vital characteristics of being a successful researcher are curiosity and persistence.  Without curiosity, one does not get excited by tangential ideas and does not question everything about a topic.  Without persistence, a researcher could give up right before a breakthrough.

 

One might expect a ground-breaking researcher’s biggest problem to be exploring materials for new functions, or having to learn a new subject or skill for a certain aspect of a project, but that would be incorrect. The hardest part about cutting-edge, borderline science-fiction research, according to Professor Trimmer, is simply coordinating different disciplines to come together on a single project. His current research relies on the fields of biology, engineering, computing, electrical engineering, and much more.  Because universities are compartmentalized into distinct departments, it is often challenging to interact and come together to work on a single project.

In the immediate future, Professor Trimmer hopes to develop small, light, soft-body robots that can be used on the space station to sequester moisture in electrical panels, or as he liked to describe them, “crawling mops.”

Scientists are still just merely scratching the surface of what humans can learn from the wonderful animal world that surrounds us.  More information on Professor Trimmer’s research can be found at http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/faculty/trimmer/.

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