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'Biohybrid' robot built with sea slug tissue could be used to find toxins, black boxes

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have created a “biohybrid” robot that’s capable of crawling around underwater like a sea turtle on a beach. In doing so, it could be used to seek out potentially dangerous toxins in lakes or ponds — or even comb the ocean floor in search of lost flight data recorders, also known as black boxes.

A collaboration between researchers in the robotics, biomechanics, and biology departments of the university, the biohybrid robot is made up of tissues from a sea slug combined with flexible 3D-printed components.

“A biohybrid robot is a synthetic device powered by muscle tissue or cells,” Victoria Webster, a Ph.D. student who is leading the research, tells Digital Trends. “The contraction of the muscle causes the device to move around. Previously, such devices have used cells from mammals or birds, which require very specific environments to function. The sea slug, on the other hand, is very robust. It lives in the intertidal region in the ocean and experiences huge temperature and salinity changes. As a result, its cells are also very robust.”

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Case’s biohybrid robot is capable of functioning in both fresh water and seawater, and at a wide range of temperatures. Currently, the robot is controlled by an external electrical field, although future versions may be upgraded to include ganglia, bundles of neurons and nerves, as an organic controller. Collagen from the slug’s skin will also be tested as an organic “scaffold” in later versions of the robot.

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“Our long-term goal is to develop completely biocompatible robots for environmental sensing and monitoring,” Webster said. “The idea would be to release swarms of these devices in either fresh or salt water environments for continually monitoring for toxins or leaks. If the robots break down, they would just degrade or be eaten and are completely environmentally friendly, whereas traditional robots would be a source of pollution.”

While early tests with the robot showed it to be capable of moving at only around 0.4 centimeters per minute, the technology certainly has some exciting implications — particularly if you were able to unleash a whole swarm of the machine-creatures.