Tufts "Biomimetic Technologies" Project Will Create First Soft-Bodied Robots
New Devices could be used in Operating Rooms, Space Stations
MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. — While robots have moved from the realm of science
fiction to a myriad of real-life uses, the potential of the "hard-bodied"
robots of the 21st century remains limited by their stiff construction and lack of
flexibility. A group of researchers at Tufts University has launched a multidisciplinary
initiative focused on the science and engineering of a new class of robots that are
completely soft-bodied. These devices will make possible advances in such far flung
arenas as medicine and space exploration.
Trimmer, Professor of Biology, and
Professor of Biomedical Engineering, are Co-Directors of the Biomimetic Technologies
for Soft-bodied Robots project, which represents a consortium of seven Tufts faculty
members from five departments in the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and
Sciences. The project has just been awarded a grant of $730,000 from the W.M. Keck
According to Kaplan, the
project will bring together biology, bioengineering and micro/nano fabrication.
"Our overall goal is to develop systems and devices–soft-bodied
robots–based on biological materials and on the adaptive mechanisms found in
living cells, tissues and whole organisms," he explains. These devices, he notes,
will have direct applications in robotics, such as manufacturing, emergency search and
retrieval, and repair and maintenance of equipment in space; in medical diagnosis and
treatment, including endoscopy, remote surgery, and prostheses design; and in novel
electronics such as soft circuits and power supplies.
characteristic that distinguishes man-made structures from biological ones is the
preponderance of stiff materials," explains Trimmer.
"In contrast, living systems may contain stiff materials such as
bone and cuticle but their fundamental building blocks are soft and
elastic. This distinction between biological and man-made objects is
so pervasive that our evaluation of artificial or living structures
is often made on the basis of the materials alone. Many machines
incorporate flexible materials at their joints and can be
tremendously fast, strong and powerful, but there is no current
technology that can match the performance of an animal moving
through natural terrain."
First "Molecules to Robots" Effort
The Tufts team represents the first major effort to design a truly soft-bodied
locomoting robot with the workspace capabilities similar to those of a living animal.
While other groups around the world are applying biomimetic approaches to engineering
design, most focus on narrow areas within this field.
"This represents a wonderfully rich and novel collaboration that takes a
comprehensive 'molecules to robots' approach to the use of soft materials,"
notes Linda M. Abriola, dean of the Tufts School of Engineering.
Work will focus on four primary areas: Control systems for soft-bodied robots,
biomimetic and bionic materials, robot design and construction, and development and
application of research-based platform technologies.
Caterpillars and Silkworms
The Keck grant will provide the team with specialized equipment for use with
materials and biomechanics experiments, according to Trimmer, whose work with
caterpillars provides insights on how to build the world's first soft-bodied robot.
Trimmer, a neurobiologist, has been studying the nervous system and biology since 1990
through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science
Foundation. His goal has been to better understand how the creatures can control
their fluid movements using a simple brain and how they can move so flexibly without
any joints. He hopes to adapt his caterpillar research to this new project using the
expertise of Tufts engineers.
Kaplan, whose laboratory focuses on biopolymer engineering, has already uncovered the
secret of how spiders and silkworms are able to spin webs and cocoons made of incredibly
strong yet flexible fibers. More recently, his team applied genetic engineering and
nanotechnology to create a "fusion protein" that for the first time combined
the toughness of spider silk with the intricate structure of silica. Kaplan notes that
there has been tremendous progress in the development and use of soft materials in devices
ranging from keyboards to toys. "However, it is very hard to make soft devices that
move around and can be precisely controlled," he says. "This is the fundamental
reason why robots currently move like robots instead of lifelike animals."
robots developed at Tufts will be continuously deformable and capable of collapsing
and crumpling into small volumes. They will have capabilities that are not currently
available in single machines including climbing textured surfaces and irregular
objects, crawling along ropes and wires, or burrowing into complex confined spaces.
"Soft-bodied robots could make many dangerous surgeries much safer and less
painful," Trimmer adds. "They could also be used by NASA to repair space
stations by reaching places that astronauts can't, perform more complicated
tasks in industry that require flexibility of movement, help in
hazardous environments like nuclear reactors and landmine detection,
and squeeze more efficiently into tight spaces."
In addition to Trimmer and Kaplan, Assistant Professors Robert White,
mechanical engineering, and Sameer Sonkusale, electrical and computer
engineering, will supervise projects in the Tufts Microfabrication Laboratory. Associate
Professor Luis Dorfmann, civil and environmental engineering, and
Visiting Assistant Professor Gary Leisk, mechanical engineering, will
supervise the material testing and modeling parts of the project, and Assistant
Professor Valencia Joyner, electrical and computer engineering and
Sonkusale will direct the design and production of sensors and soft material integrated
The work will take place in a recently expanded multi-disciplinary Tufts facility
at 200 Boston Avenue, Medford. Known as the Advanced Technologies Laboratory (ATL),
the 23,000-square-foot space includes a tissue engineering facility, a
biomimetic devices laboratory, a
soft materials characterization laboratory, and a micro/nano fabrication laboratory with
1,500 square feet of "Class 1000" clean room space.
"This facility provides a cross-disciplinary environment for faculty and
students to investigate complex systems problems related to the biological properties
of animals, tissues and cells, and their practical use in biomimetic devices,"
says Abriola. "It has the potential to develop a new area of science and
engineering with an immense impact on human and environmental health
as well as in establishing a new mode of conducting academic
research across departmental boundaries. Tufts will recruit and
train students from both science and engineering to work together in
these cross-disciplinary areas."
The Keck Foundation Grant is the second major grant that Tufts' Advanced Technologies
Laboratory has received in the last six months. The trustees of the Elizabeth A.
Lufkin - Richard H. Lufkin Memorial Fund awarded the university a $278,000 grant to
support the establishment of a microfabrication teaching facility. The microelectronics
and microsensors industry continues to grow worldwide, and this grant brings
microfabrication equipment to Tufts students, who will gain hands-on manufacturing
experience in emerging techniques with cutting-edge research and industrial applications.
Photos courtesy of Tufts University