Engineers at the University of Illinois have developed a new class of robots, called bio-bots, which have the ability to walk using muscle cells.

Photo Credit: University of Illinois

Photo Credit: University of Illinois

A new breed of robot uses actual muscle cells and move on command. Developed by engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the bio-bots are controlled by electrical pulses that allow researchers to have unprecedented command of their functions. 

"Biological actuation driven by cells is a fundamental need for any kind of biological machine you want to build," said Rashid Bashir, the study's lead and head of bioengineering at the University. "We're trying to integrate these principles of engineering with biology in a way that can be used to design and develop biological machines and systems for environmental and medical applications. Biology is tremendously powerful, and if we can somehow learn to harness its advantages for useful applications, it could bring about a lot of great things."

A strip of skeletal muscle cells are triggered by electrical pulses. With this, researchers are able to control the bio-bots, which can be customized for different uses. 

"Skeletal muscles cells are very attractive because you can pace them using external signals," Bashir explained. "For example, you would use skeletal muscle when designing a device that you wanted to start functioning when it senses a chemical or when it received a certain signal. To us, it's part of a design toolbox. We want to have different options that could be used by engineers to design these things."

Researchers were inspired by the muscle-tendon-bone complex seen in nature. The bio-bots have a backbone made of 3D-printed hydrogel, which serves as the structure but is still flexible enough to bend like joints. The bio-bots also have two posts that anchor the muscle to the backbone, much like tendons keep muscles attached to bones. 

"This work represents an important first step in the development and control of biological machines that can be stimulated, trained, or programmed to do work. It's exciting to think that this system could eventually evolve into a generation of biological machines that could aid in drug delivery, surgical robotics, 'smart' implants, or mobile environmental analyzers, among countless other applications."

Currently, researchers can control the speed at which the bio-bots move, but they are working toward gaining even more control of their motion by integrating neurons that will allow them to be steered in different directions.

Learn more about bio-bots in the video below.