Living woodlice and marine mollusks act as "grippers" for robot hands in a new study

This novel idea was proposed by scientists from Japan and sees robotics taking a new direction with the help of biology.
Tejasri Gururaj
Scientists use woodlice and marine mollusks as end effectors for robotic hands.
Scientists use woodlice and marine mollusks as end effectors for robotic hands.

New Scientist/YouTube 

Research in robotics is growing fast, with the development of robots like Ameca that can express emotions. The hands of a robot, also known as end effectors, are the devices that interact with the physical environment. 

Previously, scientists have used skin grafts and muscle tissue to the end of robotic arms, but never an entire living organism. But scientists have developed a unique situation of using bugs in their robots. And no, we don't mean the kind of bug that throws an error, instead a living bug

Scientists from three Japanese Universities, Yamagata, Tohoku, and Keio, have proposed a novel idea of using living organisms as end effectors for robots. 

This is the first study that uses an entire living organism, attempting to take robotics in a new direction by combining it with biology. 

Bugs give robots a hand

The team focused on using pill bugs (or woodlice) and chitons (or marine mollusks) as the functional grippers attached to the end of the robotic arms. The concept involves using the reflexive habits of these organisms to grasp objects and apply their movements to robots.

The team used 3D printing to design harnesses and housings made of carbon composites for living organisms. These allowed them to interact with external objects without hindering movement. 

Their method stands out compared to previous studies as the team leveraged structures and movements of specific body parts of these organisms without disconnecting them from the organism. This preserves the life and integrity of the creature. 

Despite this, there are several ethical concerns regarding using organisms for our personal use. However, the researchers emphasized that they were committed to the ethical treatment of these organisms.

In a press release, the researchers said, "It will be crucially important to enforce bioethics rules and regulations, especially when dealing with animals that have higher cognition. We recommend caution when handling any animal and to exercise mindfulness in avoiding their suffering as much as possible and to the best of our knowledge."

What can it do?

The team tested the pill bug end effector using a piece of cotton weighing 0.03 grams. They found that the pill bug successfully grabbed and released the cotton. The pill bug could also rotate the cotton and hold it for nearly two minutes before releasing it. 

You can see the pill bug end effector in action below.

For the chiton end effector, they tested its gripping capability on items such as wood, cork, and plastic cylinders. They found that the chiton could grip the objects but had trouble releasing them underwater. This contradicts ordinary suction cup end effectors, which cannot attach to wood and cork. 

You can see the chiton end effector in action below.

The researchers identify potential tasks for utilizing the grasping reflex of organisms, including geckos with microstructures on their toes for item retrieval, octopuses, squid, and frogs with strong suction capacities, sea cucumbers for flexible and rigid grasping, and bacteria's flagella for micro-handling applications.

They also envision grasping devices using carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap and Australian sundew. The team has shown a new direction for robotics research.

The findings of the study are published on the arXiv pre-print server. 

Study abstract:

In robotics, an end effector is a device at the end of a robotic arm designed to physically interact with objects or the environment itself. Effectively, it serves as the hand of the robot, carrying out tasks on behalf of humans. But could we turn this concept on its head and consider using living organisms themselves as end effectors? This paper introduces a novel idea of using whole living organisms as end effectors for robotics. We showcase this by demonstrating that pill bugs and chitons -- types of small, harmless creatures -- can be utilized as functional grippers. Crucially, this method does not harm these creatures, enabling their release back into nature after use. How this concept may be expanded to other organisms and applications is also discussed.

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