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Soft Bodies, Hard Science

Soft Bodies, Hard ScienceAn interdisciplinary group of Tufts researchers is working to create the first soft-bodied robots, which they hope will make major contributions to the fields of medicine and science.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.12.07] If you look at a caterpillar inching along the ground, you may just see a bug. But one group of Tufts scientists sees the promise of innovation. Using the caterpillar as inspiration, this group is reaching across disciplines to create the first completely soft-bodied robots that mimic the abilities of live animals—creations that they hope will eventually bring significant advances in medicine, electronics, space exploration and many other fields.

Softbodiedrobots"You don't see robots that are like animals that can collapse down and are soft and pliable," Barry Trimmer, professor of biology at Tufts, told ABC News, which carried news of the project online and through 20 affiliates across the United States. "There are things that animals can do that robots can't, and we'd like to exploit that."

Trimmer and Biomedical Engineering Professor David Kaplan co-direct the Biomimetic Technologies for Soft-bodied Robots project, which is comprised of seven Tufts faculty members from five departments in the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. The project recently received a $730,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

While traditional "hard robots" have limited uses because of their lack of flexibility and maneuverability, the Tufts scientists see the caterpillar as a unique template.

"Living systems may contain stiff materials such as bone and cuticle but their fundamental building blocks are soft and elastic," said Trimmer in a UPI story. "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."

Noted the Discovery Channel’s online news site, “Flexible robots could do everything from explore inside a person’s body to help doctors make a medical diagnosis, to examine industrial pipelines for damage. They could also be used to climb through hazardous zones such as inside a nuclear reactor or minefield, or repair delicate solar panels on space vehicles.”

Since coming to Tufts in 1990, Trimmer has extensively studied how caterpillars are able to move as fluidly as they do with such small brain capacity, earning grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Kaplan, whose research focuses on biopolymer engineering, has uncovered the secrets of the strong fibers spun by spiders and silkworms, and recently created a genetically engineered "fusion protein" that combined spider silk with silica.

Together with their colleagues, the two have their sights set on soft-bodied robots, which they hope will have wide and varied uses, with life-saving potential.

"You could make them disposable," Trimmer told ABC News. "You could compress a bunch of robots into a canister, and shoot them into a mine field. The canister breaks open, all these little critters crawl out and go off in different directions. When they find a mine, they send out a signal. You don't care if they get blown up because they don't cost $100,000 each. They cost 50 cents."

The research is underway at a 20,000-square-foot multidisciplinary facility near Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus called the Advanced Technologies Laboratory.

"[The new facility] 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," said School of Engineering Dean Linda Abriola. "Tufts will recruit and train students from both science and engineering to work together in these cross-disciplinary areas."

The other members of the team are Robert White, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Sameer Sonkusale, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Luis Dorfmann, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Gary Leisk, visiting assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Valencia Joyner, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"This started to come together as people in engineering and biology and biomedical engineering started talking to one another," Trimmer told ABC News.

He further explained to Mass High Tech that “this research could move robots into a whole new realm of capability.”

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