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Modeling Future Robots on the Sea Lamprey

Researchers in the UK and the United States are modeling a disease-detecting microrobot on the sea lamprey. (Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Fishery Commission)

A tiny prototype robot--dubbed 'Cyberplasm'--is being developed by scientists in the UK and United States. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the device is being designed to mimic key functions of the sea lamprey, a creature found primarily in the Atlantic Ocean. The researchers hope that by basing their device on the sea lamprey, it will be extremely sensitive and responsive to the environment into which it is placed. If successful, the robot could eventually be used to swim through the human body to detect diseases.

The scientists are modeling their robot on the sea lamprey because it has a very primitive nervous system that is easier to mimic than more sophisticated nervous systems. And because it can swim, the sea lamprey was considered by the researchers to be the best candidate on which to model Cyberplasm.

Based on advanced microelectronics and biomimetics, Cyberplasm will have an electronic nervous system, 'eye' and 'nose' sensors derived from mammalian cells, and artificial muscles that use glucose as an energy source to propel it. The scientists' goal is to engineer and integrate robot components that respond to light and chemicals, as do biological systems. Once it is developed, the prototype will be less than 1 cm long, although future versions could potentially be less than 1 mm long or even built on the nanoscale.

Cyberplasm's sensors are being developed to respond to external stimuli by converting them into electronic impulses that are sent to an electronic 'brain' equipped with sophisticated microchips. This brain will then send electronic messages to artificial muscles telling them how to contract and relax, enabling the robot to undulate its way through the body. These systems will also be able to collect and store data on the chemical composition of the robot's surroundings.

In addition to detecting diseases, Cyberplasm could find use in advanced prosthetics. In such applications, living muscle tissue might be engineered to contract and relax in response to stimulation from light waves or electronic signals.

"Nothing matches a living creature's natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore to collect data on what's going on around it," remarks Newcastle University bioengineer Daniel Frankel, who is leading the UK-based work. The researchers are developing and testing Cyberplasm's individual components, hoping to proceed to the assembly stage within a couple of years. "We believe Cyberplasm could start being used in real-world situations within five years," Frankel adds.

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