July 2017 | This is a short research paper on the newly emerging use of biotechnology in the field of robotics.
In recent years, one of the fastest-growing fields in science has been biotechnology. Scientists have been learning more and more about how technology can manipulate biology. But what about the opposite — using biology to inspire and integrate with technology? This idea is put into practice in the study and creation of biobots, robots that use biology as the basis of their design. Biobots are being utilized as engineers find success in their design. This new field of exploration is built on the idea that nature and evolution are the worlds greatest engineers, responsible for everything from a bird’s ability to maneuver itself in flight to the brain’s ability to learn new tasks. Why should we try to replicate what they’ve already achieved? The increased study and usage of biobots has proven them to be practical, and promises to help improve our understanding and optimization of technology.
The inspiration for biobots comes from the observation and study of the anatomy of animals. At the University of North Carolina, scientists study a variety of birds and the movement of their wings so that they might better understand what makes them so successful in flight (Akpan 19-20). Their studies reveal that the anatomy of these birds gives them many capabilities that man-made technology lacks, such as superior acceleration and steering, and the ability to sense and react to their surroundings (Akpan 20). This team of scientists is not alone; close studies of animals such as this one have uncovered many structures that are adaptable for use in technology. The findings can then be used to “harness the efficiency and high performance of the animal[s],” taking their and employing it in their own inventions (Donahue 11).
The process of translating observation into implementation is where the findings on the systems of animals are integrated into technology. The study of the mechanics of birds’ wings can be applied to the construction of drones to improve their own flying capabilities. Research on the wings and bodies of birds in flight is used for this purpose; drones with appendages modeled after those of flying animals were proven to display more effective flight (Akpan 19). Other animals’ anatomy has also been used to this end. Animals such as fish, snakes, and kangaroos contain the keys to advanced technology, the dexterity of their limbs and the unique way in which they use them to move providing a blueprint (Donahue). Even studies of the learning process of animals can give clues about how to optimize robots’ sensory reaction. Baby animals can learn to react and adapt to their environment at incredibly fast speeds, and some scientists remain convinced that they can use the way animals’ minds work to make more adaptable robots (Donahue 10). The use of animals’ systems becomes more commonplace as more engineers realize its potential.
But biobots don’t stop at imitating animals — sometimes they use the animal itself. Animals and other organic matter already have natural ways of accomplishing tasks engineers need from robots. For example, the muscle tissue contained in animals has the ability to expand and contract, facilitating movement, as well as storing its own energy. These qualities are desirable for robots, so instead of attempting to imitate it, researchers have attached live tissue to the man-made portions of their robots. This confers the biobots with the natural advantages of muscle that technology lacks — for example, the ability to grow and strengthen itself through exercise and the ability to operate without a battery (O’Connell 2). The problem of building a miniature robot light enough to fly has also been approached in this way. Pauls reports on a scientist exploring the use of live insects fused with the technology able to control them as an alternative for the increasingly small robots engineers attempt to create. Scientists also harbor hope that one day biobots such as these could work completely autonomously, carrying out their functions without direct human control, thinking for themselves much like the creatures that inspired them.
The rise of biobots, like most scientific advancements, is driven by a practical need. Already biobots are being put to use, from military missions to producing artificial intelligence and beyond. They help make our technology better and more efficient, lending us wisdom by teaching us that we needn’t always solve problems from scratch: sometimes the best answers are already there. Surely we can look forward to the continued development of this field of exploration in the future. Biobots are not an alternative to classical engineering; they’re an improvement on it. Combining nature’s slowly perfected systems and human ingenuity may provide the way to advance technology faster than the world has ever seen.