Light-activated heart cells help guide robotic stingray

The age of robotics has long been dominated by hard metals and clunky objects. In recent years, however, scientists and engineers have begun to develop softer and even “squishy” robots, as they experiment with different materials and systems for their design and function.

One such development is the robotic stingray, created by researchers at Harvard University. The bot, which is about the size of a one-cent penny, looks quite literally like a miniature stingray. This robot is unique in that it can move in response to light stimulation in the environment.

robotic stingray

Movement by light stimulation was made possible through the addition of heart cells on top of the silicone and gold body, cells of which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The cells, which come from rat hearts, were genetically engineered to contract in response to light. Thus with the sheer number of cells molded on top of the “stingray”, its fins can move up and down with the contraction, or undulation, of the cells.

You can view the robot in action here.

Bioengineer Kit Parker, the leader of this research, claims that he found inspiration from how we use laser pointers that children or cats will chase around. Essentially, the light acts as the guide, and the subject follows.

Parker is keen to create an artificial heart that can be used for heart transplants, but to do so he has to work on systems that mimic or replicate the “pump” quality of the heart. A stingray’s body is essentially one big pump, that moves liquids around it. Similarly, the heart acts as a pump for circulating blood in the body.

 “Some engineers build things out of aluminum. I build things out of cells — and I need to practice…. So I practice building pumps.”

– Kit Parker

Other applications for the bot could include waste cleanup, where they could be outfitted to collect toxicants out of bodies of water. However, the research with the robotic stingray is only just beginning.

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