A Sea Lamprey mouth, close up (credit Great Lakes Fishery Commission)

'Cyberplasm' micro-robot could detect diseases in humans

Scientists are developing a tiny robot which functions like a living creature and could be used to detect diseases in humans.

The ‘Cyberplasm’ prototype robot is being developed by researchers based in the UK and US and will combine advanced microelectronics with latest research in biomimicry.

Cyberplasm will be designed to mimic key functions of the sea lamprey, a creature found mainly in the Atlantic Ocean.

The team aims to give Cyberplasm an electronic nervous system, with ‘eye’ and ‘nose’ sensors derived from mammalian cells, as well as artificial muscles using glucose as an energy source to propel it.  

The intention is to engineer and integrate robot components that respond to light and chemicals in the same way as biological systems.

Cyberplasm is being developed over the next few years as part of an international collaboration funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA.

The UK-based work, which is taking place at Newcastle University, is a three-year initiative and is receiving EPSRC funding of just over £298,000.

“Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore to collect data on what’s going on around it,” said Dr Daniel Frankel, a bioengineer at Newcastle University, who is leading the UK-based work.

The team believes their approach will enable the micro-robot to be extremely sensitive and responsive to the environment it is put into.

Future uses could include the ability to swim unobtrusively through the human body to detect a whole range of diseases.  

The sea lamprey has a very primitive nervous system, which is easier to mimic than more sophisticated nervous systems.

This, together with the fact that it swims, made the sea lamprey the best candidate for the project team to base Cyberplasm on.  

Once it is developed the Cyberplasm prototype will be less than 1cm long.

Future versions could potentially be less than 1mm long or even built on a nanoscale.

Cyberplasm’s sensors are being developed to respond to external stimuli by converting them into electronic impulses that are sent to an electronic ‘brain’ equipped with sophisticated microchips.

This brain will then send electronic messages to artificial muscles telling them how to contract and relax, enabling the robot to navigate its way safely using an undulating motion.

Similarly, data on the chemical make-up of the robot’s surroundings can be collected and stored via these systems for later recovery by the robot’s operators.

Cyberplasm could also represent the first step on the road to important advances in, for example, advanced prosthetics where living muscle tissue might be engineered to contract and relax in response to stimulation from light waves or electronic signals.

“We’re currently developing and testing Cyberplasm’s individual components,” Frankel said.

“We hope to get to the assembly stage within a couple of years. We believe Cyberplasm could start being used in real-world situations within five years.”    

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