Stanisa Martinovic @ stock.adobe.com
In face of the negative impact caused by humans and industries throughout the past century, researchers are investigating how robots can positively serve and alleviate nature, but making them a hybrid species when combined with living organisms like insects. The brain of an insect is much less complex than the human brain, to the point that it is possible for scientists to understand how movements such as running or flying are programmed into these species. The bio-robotic control of insects has thus enabled a novel cybernetic-physical approach by the development of hybrid insects with chip implants and robotic parts that could be programmed to substitute behaviors of endangered species. These biobots are designed to replicate the environmental responsibilities of a species, for example, keeping parasites away from trees by reproducing the pecking sound of a real woodpecker.
The incorporation of software and hardware into the nervous system of insects enables scientists to control their motor functions and enhance their sensing capabilities. These cyborg insects have their body augmented with electronic parts and microfluidic control units that could help restore extinct species and forecast information in areas that are hard to access for humans. Constant feedback could be drawn from their sensors, allowing them to form the nodes of a mobile sensor network that could work in unfamiliar dynamic environments and, for example, after natural disasters to help pinpoint survivors with the help of Machine Vision.
However, insects are not the only species targeted in this kind of scientific research. Previous research has used graphene Quantum Dots (QDs) on an interface with a single bacterial spore, so scientists could create a Graphene Cytobot. More recently, in 2020, a team from the University of Illinois took the other way around by successfully merging a 3D printed hydrogel skeleton with the spinal cord of a rat in order to create a functional walking "spinobot." By applying glutamate, a neurotransmitter released by nerve cells in the brain, scientists could thus stimulate a patterned muscle contraction in the animal's spine, which in turn moves the robotic "feet" while also mimicking the partial development of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). In this case, the approach of soft robotics is rather creating synthetic organisms with biological elements rather than turning living organisms, like insects, into interfaces.
A Swarm Of Biobots
Black Mirror frightened audiences worldwide with the episode "Hated in the Nation" about surveillance robotic bees. Despite the dystopian visions disclosed in the TV series, a similar biomimetic approach to robotics is currently a real-life promising project both in academic research and in the financial market. In 2020, for instance, Biobot Analytics raised $6.7 million in seed funding to transform wastewater infrastructure into public health observatories after developing a biobot that detects Covid-19 in sewage. Ultimately, the same premise of this technology could be used by doctors who may take waste samples from patients in order to understand, diagnose and care for their wellbeing, as stated by Marina Matus, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Biobot Analytics.
With a more invasive approach, other researchers are also investigating the development of 3D-printed hydrogel biobots which would provide patients with advancements in programmable tissue engineering, drug delivery, and biomimetic machine design. While biobots are for now developed after simpler organisms such as insects and small mammals, the perspective is that in the future we may use this same premise to reach the next step in our evolution as a species, a perspective proposed by authors such as James Lovelock.