Faculty awarded NSF grant to develop bio-hybrid soft architectures


Stefanie Anderson

Mattia Gazzola (left) and Taher Saif
Mattia Gazzola (left) and Taher Saif
Research in the field of soft robotics and bio-hybrid robotics could improve the process for designing and building living robots for use in the medical field.

Soft robotics is a field focusing on robots made of soft, highly compliant materials that are similar to those found in living organisms. These robots have more flexibility and adaptability than those made of rigid materials, but there are very few rigorous engineering methods used to design and manufacture them.

MechSE professors Mattia Gazzola, Taher Saif, and other colleagues recently won a major, $2M grant from the National Science Foundation for their project, “An integrated approach towards computational design, fabrication and understanding of bio-hybrid soft architectures capable of adaptive behavior.”  They aim to develop modeling and simulation software for these types of robots, while also improving fabrication protocol. The group is focused on a subfield of soft robotics that includes integrating living matter onto artificial elements, also known as bio-hybrid robotics. The robots integrate these biological elements, such as muscle cells and neurons, with soft electronics and soft, bio-compatible materials to create a robot that is practically alive.

Very few labs around the world are capable of fabricating free standing bio-hybrid robots, with two of them here at Illinois: that of Saif and Bioengineering Professor and College of Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir. Harvard Professor George Lauder and Northwestern Professor John Rogers are also involved in the project. Lauder, a biologist, will give input on the workings of organisms and constituting biological elements, while Rogers will enable the team to integrate soft, compliant electronics to enhance the capabilities of these robots.

Bio-hybrid robots are very energy efficient since they are naturally equipped to extract nutrients and sugars to produce their own energy. They also can be completely bio-compatible with an individual, since they can be made from the individual’s own cells. Thanks to these characteristics, they have a wide variety of potential applications.

“We envision that these tiny robots swarm through your body and deliver a drug or are able to explore some parts of your body and send back diagnostics for prevention of a disease,” Gazzola said. “We want to design them so that they are able to manipulate the environment around them, so they might even be able to perform microsurgery at some level, or simply to deliver some cargo cells used to patch an organ.”

The results of this research can also help scientists learn more about the inner workings of living, biological architectures, and how the interaction of design, soft body mechanics, sensory feedback, and the environment can affect their control and function.

"Soft robotics promise enormous advantages over traditional rigid robots, such as safer working environments and greater - literal - flexibility," said Dawn Tilbury, NSF's assistant director for engineering, in a press release. "Robots are permeating nearly every sector of our economy and society, changing how we work, live and play. Successfully adapting to this evolving landscape requires creating technology that adapts to us, humans. Meeting this future need requires re-engineering systems, from bottom to top and from nose to tail.”

The team has a history of work in soft robotics. Gazzola and Saif helped develop micro-bots using cultured heart cells that were optimized to swim. Gazzola and Lauder developed stingray-like robots using muscle cells that use light sensors to navigate. Bashir engineered muscle powered mini-walking robots.

Bio-hybrid robot models.
Bio-hybrid robot models.