The Army Wants to Give Its Robots Living Muscle Tissue

The U.S. Army is looking into using animal muscle tissue as a means to move robots.

The Army Research Laboratory believes its bots could use real muscle, which allows most living things to move and manipulate their environments, instead of mechanical arms, wheels, tracks, and other systems to travel across the battlefield. The concept, which some might find disturbing, is an example of the new field of “biohybrids.”

Today’s military robots, particularly ground-based robots, navigate the battlefield on wheels and tracks, methods of locomotion copied over from human-occupied vehicles. But researchers “are reaching a point where they’re experiencing diminishing returns in the design of these robots with wheels as their primary locomotor, and batteries as their centralized power system,” NextGov reports.

Modern army robots use batteries that power motors, which then drive axles and turn wheels. A biohybrid-powered robot would replace this entire system with lab-grown organic muscle tissue that might power artificial legs or other limbs. Electrical impulses or chemical actuation would control the muscles.

One of the major advantages of using organic muscle tissue is its inherent flexibility. Muscles and tendons can flex, pull, and give as an animal moves over mixed terrain, and especially as it encounters unexpected problems.

Dr. Dean Culver, a research scientist at the Army Research Lab, explains it like this, via NextGov:

A wheel-bound robot can’t do that, instead relying on shock absorbers to make up for the sudden shift.

“Robots who are, obviously, in Army applications going to go into unknown and unpredictable environments—they need to be able to adapt to things that they weren’t planning for,” Culver said. “So, that’s a big part of this effort as well.”

Biohybrid robots could show great promise, but there’s a lot to think about. Are humans ready for robots with legs and actual organic muscle moving across the battlefield? Machines work for living things, and it’s a bit unsettling to think of living tissue as an inseparable part of a machine—especially as a weapon of war.

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