A tiny prototype robot that functions like a living
creature is being developed which one day could be safely used to pinpoint
diseases within the human body.
Called Cyberplasm, it will combine advanced
microelectronics with latest research in biomimicry (technology inspired by
nature). The aim is for Cyberplasm to have an electronic nervous system, ‘eye’
and ‘nose’ sensors derived from mammalian cells, as well as artificial muscles
that use glucose as an energy source to propel it.
The intention is to engineer and integrate robot
components that respond to light and chemicals in the same way as biological
systems. This is a completely innovative way of pushing robotics forward.
Cyberplasm is being developed over the next few years as
part of an international collaboration funded by the Engineering and Physical
Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the U.K.
and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. The U.K.-based work is taking
place at Newcastle
University. The project
originated from a ‘sandpit’ (idea gathering session) on synthetic biology
jointly funded by the two organizations.
Cyberplasm will be designed to mimic key functions of the
sea lamprey, a creature found mainly in the Atlantic Ocean.
It is believed this approach will enable the microrobot to be extremely
sensitive and responsive to the environment it is put into. Future uses could
include the ability to swim unobtrusively through the human body to detect a
whole range of diseases.
The sea lamprey has a very primitive nervous system,
which is easier to mimic than more sophisticated nervous systems. This,
together with the fact that it swims, made the sea lamprey the best candidate
for the project team to base Cyberplasm on.
Once it is developed the Cyberplasm prototype will be
less than 1 cm long. Future versions could potentially be less than 1 mm long
or even built on a nanoscale.
“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,” says bioengineer Daniel Frankel, PhD, of Newcastle University,
who is leading the U.K.-based work.
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 navigate its way safely using an
Similarly, data on the chemical makeup of the robot’s
surroundings can be collected and stored through these systems for later
recovery by the robot’s operators.
Cyberplasm could also represent the first step on the
road to important advances in, for example, advanced prosthetics where living
muscle tissue might be engineered to contract and relax in response to
stimulation from light waves or electronic signals.
“We’re currently developing and
testing Cyberplasm’s individual components,” says Frankel. “We hope to get to
the assembly stage within a couple of years. We believe Cyberplasm could start
being used in real-world situations within five years.”