Using UAVs and insect cyborgs to map disaster areas

via North Carolina State University

via North Carolina State University

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a combination of software and hardware that will allow them to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and insect cyborgs, or biobots, to map large, unfamiliar areas – such as collapsed buildings after a disaster.

“The idea would be to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots – such as remotely controlled cockroaches – into a collapsed building or other dangerous, unmapped area,” says Edgar Lobaton, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of two papers describing the work.

“Using remote-control technology, we would restrict the movement of the biobots to a defined area,” Lobaton says. “That area would be defined by proximity to a beacon on a UAV. For example, the biobots may be prevented from going more than 20 meters from the UAV.”

The biobots would be allowed to move freely within a defined area and would signal researchers via radio waves whenever they got close to each other. Custom software would then use an algorithm to translate the biobot sensor data into a rough map of the unknown environment.

Once the program receives enough data to map the defined area, the UAV moves forward to hover over an adjacent, unexplored section. The biobots move with it, and the mapping process is repeated. The software program then stitches the new map to the previous one. This can be repeated until the entire region or structure has been mapped; that map could then be used by first responders or other authorities.

“This has utility for areas – like collapsed buildings – where GPS can’t be used,” Lobaton says. “A strong radio signal from the UAV could penetrate to a certain extent into a collapsed building, keeping the biobot swarm contained. And as long as we can get a signal from any part of the swarm, we are able to retrieve data on what the rest of the swarm is doing. Based on our experimental data, we know you’re going to lose track of a few individuals, but that shouldn’t prevent you from collecting enough data for mapping.”

Co-lead author Alper Bozkurt, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, has previously developed functional cockroach biobots. However, to test their new mapping technology, the research team relied on inch-and-a-half-long robots that simulate cockroach behavior.

In their experiment, researchers released these robots into a maze-like space, with the effect of the UAV beacon emulated using an overhead camera and a physical boundary attached to a moving cart. The cart was moved as the robots mapped the area. (Video from the experiment is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWnrGsJEw6s&feature=youtu.be.)

“We had previously developed proof-of-concept software that allowed us to map small areas with biobots, but this work allows us to map much larger areas and to stitch those maps together into a comprehensive overview,” Lobaton says. “It would be of much more practical use for helping to locate survivors after a disaster, finding a safe way to reach survivors, or for helping responders determine how structurally safe a building may be.

“The next step is to replicate these experiments using biobots, which we’re excited about.”

Learn more: Tech Would Use Drones and Insect Biobots to Map Disaster Areas

 

 

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Light illuminates the way for bio-bots

 

via University of Illinois

via University of Illinois

A new class of miniature biological robots, or bio-bots, has seen the light – and is following where the light shines.

The bio-bots are powered by muscle cells that have been genetically engineered to respond to light, giving researchers control over the bots’ motion, a key step toward their use in applications for health, sensing and the environment. Led by Rashid Bashir, the University of Illinois head of bioengineering, the researchers published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Light is a noninvasive way to control these machines,” Bashir said. “It gives us flexibility in the design and the motion. The bottom line of what we are trying to accomplish is the forward design of biological systems, and we think the light control is an important step toward that.”

Bashir’s group previously demonstrated bio-bots that were activated with an electrical field, but electricity can cause adverse side effects to a biological environment and does not allow for selective stimulation of distinct regions of muscle to steer the bio-bot, Bashir said. The new light-stimulation technique is less invasive and allows the researchers to steer the bio-bots in different directions. The bio-bots turn and walk toward the light stimulus, Bashir said.

The researchers begin by growing rings of muscle tissue from a mouse cell line. The muscle cells have a gene added so that a certain wavelength of blue light stimulates the muscle to contract, a technique called optogenetics. The rings are looped around posts on 3-D-printed flexible backbones, ranging from about 7 millimeters to 2 centimeters in length.

“The skeletal muscle rings we engineer are shaped like rings or rubber bands because we want them to be modular,” said graduate student Ritu Raman, the first author of the paper. “This means we can treat them as building blocks that can be combined with any 3-D-printed skeleton to make bio-bots for a variety of different applications.”

In addition to the modular design, the thin muscle rings have the advantages of allowing light and nutrients to diffuse into the tissue from all sides. This contrasts with earlier bio-bot designs, which used a thick strip of muscle tissue grown around the skeleton.

The researchers tried skeletons of a variety of sizes and shapes to find which configurations generated the most net motion. They also exercised the muscle rings daily, triggering the muscle with a flashing light, to make them stronger so that the bots moved farther with each contraction.

“This is a much more flexible design,” Bashir said. “With the rings, we can connect any two joints or hinges on the 3-D-printed skeleton. We can have multiple legs and multiple rings. With the light, we can control which direction things move. People can now use this to build higher-order systems.”

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Robotic insect mimics Nature’s extreme moves

In this video, watch how novel robotic insects developed by a team of Seoul National University and Harvard scientists can jump directly off water's surface. The robots emulate the natural locomotion of water strider insects, which skim on and jump off the surface of water. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

In this video, watch how novel robotic insects developed by a team of Seoul National University and Harvard scientists can jump directly off water’s surface. The robots emulate the natural locomotion of water strider insects, which skim on and jump off the surface of water. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

An international team of Seoul National University and Harvard researchers looked to water strider insects to develop robots that jump off water’s surface

The concept of walking on water might sound supernatural, but in fact it is a quite natural phenomenon. Many small living creatures leverage water’s surface tension to maneuver themselves around. One of the most complex maneuvers, jumping on water, is achieved by a species of semi-aquatic insects called water striders that not only skim along water’s surface but also generate enough upward thrust with their legs to launch themselves airborne from it.

 

Now, emulating this natural form of water-based locomotion, an international team of scientists from Seoul National University, Korea (SNU), Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has unveiled a novel robotic insect that can jump off of water’s surface. In doing so, they have revealed new insights into the natural mechanics that allow water striders to jump from rigid ground or fluid water with the same amount of power and height. The work is reported in the July 31 issue of Science.

“Water’s surface needs to be pressed at the right speed for an adequate amount of time, up to a certain depth, in order to achieve jumping,” said the study’s co–senior author Kyu Jin Cho, Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Biorobotics Laboratory at Seoul National University. “The water strider is capable of doing all these things flawlessly.”

The water strider, whose legs have slightly curved tips, employs a rotational leg movement to aid it its takeoff from the water’s surface, discovered co–senior author Ho–Young Kim who is Professor in SNU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of SNU’s Micro Fluid Mechanics Lab. Kim, a former Wyss Institute Visiting Scholar, worked with the study’s co–first author Eunjin Yang, a graduate researcher at SNU’s Micro Fluid Mechanics lab, to collect water striders and take extensive videos of their movements to analyze the mechanics that enable the insects to skim on and jump off water’s surface.

It took the team several trial and error attempts to fully understand the mechanics of the water strider, using robotic prototypes to test and shape their hypotheses.

“If you apply as much force as quickly as possible on water, the limbs will break through the surface and you won’t get anywhere,” said Robert Wood, Ph.D., who is a co–author on the study, a Wyss Institute Core Faculty member, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the Harvard Paulson School, and founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab.

But by studying water striders in comparison to iterative prototypes of their robotic insect, the SNU and Harvard team discovered that the best way to jump off of water is to maintain leg contact on the water for as long as possible during the jump motion.

“Using its legs to push down on water, the natural water strider exerts the maximum amount of force just below the threshold that would break the water’s surface,” said the study’s co-first author Je-Sung Koh, Ph.D., who was pursuing his doctoral degree at SNU during the majority of this research and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute and the Harvard Paulson School.

Mimicking these mechanics, the robotic insect built by the team can exert up to 16 times its own body weight on the water’s surface without breaking through, and can do so without complicated controls. Many natural organisms such as the water strider can perform extreme styles of locomotion – such as flying, floating, swimming, or jumping on water – with great ease despite a lack of complex cognitive skills.

Read more: Robotic insect mimics Nature’s extreme moves

 

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Research Paves Way for Cyborg Moth ‘Biobots’

Photo credit: Alper Bozkurt.

Photo credit: Alper Bozkurt.

North Carolina State University researchers have developed methods for electronically manipulating the flight muscles of moths and for monitoring the electrical signals moths use to control those muscles.

The work opens the door to the development of remotely controlled moths, or “biobots,” for use in emergency response.

“In the big picture, we want to know whether we can control the movement of moths for use in applications such as search and rescue operations,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “The idea would be to attach sensors to moths in order to create a flexible, aerial sensor network that can identify survivors or public health hazards in the wake of a disaster.”

The paper presents a technique Bozkurt developed for attaching electrodes to a moth during its pupal stage, when the caterpillar is in a cocoon undergoing metamorphosis into its winged adult stage. This aspect of the work was done in conjunction with Dr. Amit Lal of Cornell University.

But the new findings in the paper involve methods developed by Bozkurt’s research team for improving our understanding of precisely how a moth coordinates its muscles during flight.

By attaching electrodes to the muscle groups responsible for a moth’s flight, Bozkurt’s team is able to monitor electromyographic signals – the electric signals the moth uses during flight to tell those muscles what to do.

The moth is connected to a wireless platform that collects the electromyographic data as the moth moves its wings. To give the moth freedom to turn left and right, the entire platform levitates, suspended in mid-air by electromagnets.

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Tiny swimming bio-bots boldly go where no bot has swum before

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Photo by Alex Jerez Roman, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology Engineers developed the first tiny, synthetic machines that can swim by themselves, powered by beating heart cells.

The alien world of aquatic micro-organisms just got new residents: synthetic self-propelled swimming bio-bots.

A team of engineers has developed a class of tiny bio-hybrid machines that swim like sperm, the first synthetic structures that can traverse the viscous fluids of biological environments on their own. Led by Taher Saif, the University of Illinois Gutgsell Professor of mechanical science and engineering, the team published its work in the journal Nature Communications.

“Micro-organisms have a whole world that we only glimpse through the microscope,” Saif said. “This is the first time that an engineered system has reached this underworld.”

The bio-bots are modeled after single-celled creatures with long tails called flagella – for example, sperm. The researchers begin by creating the body of the bio-bot from a flexible polymer. Then they culture heart cells near the junction of the head and the tail. The cells self-align and synchronize to beat together, sending a wave down the tail that propels the bio-bot forward.

This self-organization is a remarkable emergent phenomenon, Saif said, and how the cells communicate with each other on the flexible polymer tail is yet to be fully understood. But the cells must beat together, in the right direction, for the tail to move.

“It’s the minimal amount of engineering – just a head and a wire,” Saif said. “Then the cells come in, interact with the structure, and make it functional.”

See an animation of the bio-bots in motion and a video of a free-swimming bot.

The team also built two-tailed bots, which they found can swim even faster. Multiple tails also opens up the possibility of navigation. The researchers envision future bots that could sense chemicals or light and navigate toward a target for medical or environmental applications.

“The long-term vision is simple,” said Saif, who is also part of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I. “Could we make elementary structures and seed them with stem cells that would differentiate into smart structures to deliver drugs, perform minimally invasive surgery or target cancer?”

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