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Multi-University Team Building Actuators for Next-Gen Bio-Bots

Group including Jonathan Rivnay received a $6.25 million MURI grant

Animals have long served as inspiration for robotics. However, many of the mechanical properties, physical capabilities, and the behavioral flexibility seen in animals have yet to be achieved in robotic platforms. Enter biohybrid robotics—artificially engineered structures combined with living bio-systems. 

Northwestern Engineering’s Jonathan Rivnay is part of a team of researchers led by Carnegie Mellon University that also has members from The Georgia Institute of Technology that will work to improve the strength, lifespan, and control of biohybrid actuators. The team received a $6.25 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the Department of Defense. 

Jonathan Rivnay

“The MURI allows us to bring together a diverse transdisciplinary team spanning materials, biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, and electrical engineering to tackle challenging problems in biohybrid systems,” said Rivnay, a professor of biomedical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering.

Over the course of five years, the project aims to identify how to combine living materials, protein-based materials, and engineered materials to build larger scale, self-sustaining bio-actuators; understand how to keep these materials alive in a real-world environment, and determine how to leverage computational design strategies to improve peak performance.

“Right now our bio-hybrid robots run around in petri dishes and in sterile incubators,” said Vickie Webster-Wood, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon who is leading the group. “Through this project we hope to leverage our understanding of living muscle to create stronger, more useful muscle-based actuators.”

Biohybrid actuators will make it possible for future robots to grow, develop, and heal as they operate in the real world. The nature of the material will make them biodegradable and sustainable.

“This research lays the foundation to move these actuators to translation,” Webster-Wood said. “We hope to get living muscle-based actuators to the point where they are reliable and predictable enough that someone can select one, just like they would a motor, and put them to use in a robot.”

With support from researchers across labs at the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, the team intends to keep the idea “how do we move toward translation” at the center of the project to make sure that their work is constantly progressing toward real-world use.

“Building sustainable, long-lived, and bio-inspired robotics is one of the grand engineering challenges of the next many decades. This award is a significant step forward to build systems that seem almost impossible,” said Josiah Hester, an associate professor of interactive computing and computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology, and adjunct associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science at the McCormick School of Engineering. “This project will build a foundation of scientific knowledge and valuable tools and systems for these future bio-bots. I can't wait to get started.”