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Scientists Utilize Woodlice as Robotic Hands

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Robotic hands

The human hand is a remarkable product of evolution, offering unparalleled touch sensitivity and an impressive range of motion with its 27 degrees of freedom. However, these very features that make our hands so practical also present significant challenges when it comes to replicating them in robots. Recognizing this, a team of researchers has veered away from human-inspired gripper designs and turned to woodlice for inspiration.

Fortunately, they didn’t resort to using desiccated tarantula corpses, as another group of researchers from Rice University did in 2022. While those manipulators served as an innovative proof of concept by leveraging spiders’ natural locomotion mechanisms involving fluid pressure and flexor muscles instead of the antagonistic pairs found in mammals, their effectiveness was limited to the lifespan of the corpses.

In contrast, Dr. Josephine Galipon and her team from Tohoku University in Japan have developed a new system building upon the earlier work with “necrobotic” spiders, but this time utilizing live creatures. In their research paper “Biological Organisms as End Effectors,” Galipon highlights the novelty of employing whole living organisms as end effectors for robotic arms, a previously unexplored approach. The team utilizes both captured woodlice, commonly known as rolly-pollies, and captive chitons, small marine mollusks, as temporary hands for the robots.

The researchers began by 3D printing miniature seats for the animals to rest on at the end of the robot’s manipulator arm. They then assigned tasks to the woodlice and chitons, with the former handling tufts of cotton and the latter gripping submerged cork. The results were promising within realistic expectations: the woodlice interacted with the cotton for approximately two minutes before losing interest, while the chitons successfully grasped their targets and had to be actively separated from them. This achievement is particularly noteworthy considering the existing difficulties in using mechanical methods like suction cups underwater. However, it is crucial to note that much more research is needed before these initial concepts can potentially be adapted into efficient and functional robotic systems.

Furthermore, the ethical implications concerning the welfare of the test animals have also been raised by the team’s work. Questions have been raised about whether the animals are being coerced into performing against their will and how their motivations are addressed. Dr. Galipon expressed the team’s goal of establishing a cooperative relationship with sentient animals, emphasizing mutual interaction rather than domestication. Their aim is to ensure that the animals can go about their usual activities while cooperating with the researchers. It’s worth noting that this approach is considerably less invasive than the typical studies involving cyborg cockroaches.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Robotic hands

What is the concept behind using woodlice and chitons for robotic hands?

The concept involves utilizing woodlice and chitons as temporary hands for robots. These organisms offer unique abilities and characteristics that can potentially enhance underwater manipulation tasks.

How do woodlice and chitons contribute to the development of robotic hands?

Woodlice and chitons provide inspiration for robotic hand designs due to their natural capabilities. Woodlice demonstrate limited interaction with objects, while chitons exhibit successful gripping abilities, particularly useful in underwater environments.

What were the results of using woodlice and chitons as robotic hands?

The results showed promising outcomes. Woodlice interacted with objects for a brief period, while chitons effectively grasped and held onto targets. This success is noteworthy, especially considering the challenges faced with mechanical methods like suction cups underwater.

Are there any ethical concerns associated with this research?

The researchers address ethical concerns by emphasizing a cooperative relationship with the test animals. The goal is to establish mutual interaction, allowing the animals to continue their usual activities while collaborating with the researchers. This approach aims to minimize invasiveness compared to other studies involving animals.

What are the potential applications of this research?

The research paves the way for advancements in underwater manipulation tasks for robots. By drawing inspiration from woodlice and chitons, future robotic systems could potentially improve functionality and efficiency in underwater environments.

What are the limitations of this research?

Further research is necessary before these initial concepts can be adapted into practical robotic systems. Additional work is required to refine and optimize the design, functionality, and reliability of robotic hands using woodlice and chitons.

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