US Army developing ‘biological’ robots with lab-grown ‘muscles and tendons’

The US military has been looking into the use of battlefield robots for some time. But the combat machines of the future may not resemble the clunking metal monsters of science fiction.

Researchers from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory [ARL] are teaming up with academics from the University of North Carolina to develop robots that use lab-grown muscles and tendons instead of metal pistons and actuators.

Robots that use structures and materials from biology promise to be faster, more agile and more effective than the more traditional all-metal machines, says Dean Culver, an ARL research scientist.

He foresees robots that use the same kind of molecular-scale power that drives living cells.

"This nano-scale feature translates to more energetically efficient actuation at a macro scale, meaning robots that can do more for the warfighter over a longer amount of time," he told the US Army's official news site.

Culver told Federal News Network that he sees bio-hybrid engineering as the future of adaptive robots, that can explore and react to new conditions on long, unsupervised missions.

"Today’s robot’s primary limitation is power, strength and versatility. They can perform limited tasks for a certain amount of time."

But, he says, the future will be robots that can go on extended missions in unfamiliar territory without needing to be recharged or reprogrammed.

"We still don’t have robots that can go into an unknown space and adapt to what they sense. These are all ultimately problems that we feel that either a bio-hybrid or a bio-inspired engineering design can tackle."

Culver says that tomorrow’s robots won’t necessarily be imitation humans, but could take inspiration from all branches of the animal kingdom.

"Fly muscles, in particular, have some really desirable characteristics," he said.

"Using just a handful of cells to culture up a useful piece of tissue can be done with a variety of different genomes, or from a variety of different species, depending on what other kind of system-level architecture you want to use."

He admitted that bio-hybrid engineering is still in its infancy and that there’s a long way to go before we see these next-generation robots in the field.

"At the moment, we have a great theoretical basis for what we’re trying to do," he said.

"Some of the tools that we want to use to improve the design of muscle tissue for use in robots have been tested on lots of other proteins and molecules, and they’re proven to be effective.

"What we really need now is some time and support to get these tools directed at the molecules relevant in muscles. There’s a lot of learning to do before we produce prototypes."

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