Robotics Engineers Get Back to Nature at the Philadelphia Science Festival

June 1st, 2015

Robotics Engineers Get Back to Nature at the Philadelphia Science Festival

Fish, hawks, and microorganisms are inspiring a new generation of robots

By: Amanda Davis | Posted 12 May 2015

GRASP students Denise Wong, Gavin Kenneally and Justin Thomas featured in an article on The Institute covering the Philadelphia Science Festival event, “Inspired by Nature.


It’s difficult enough to build robots that can accomplish what you want them to do, so imagine building bots that you can only see under a microscope. That’s what two presenters from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, are trying to do with a new project that will manipulate and control intestinal bacteria. IEEE Graduate Student Member Denise Wong is a researcher in the university’s Multi-Robot Systems Lab, and Jeffrey Carey is earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

Wong, Carey, and a team of researchers from across the university’s engineering and biology departments have harnessed the sensing, swarming, and swimming abilities of bacteria to use them as tiny motors for plastic, microscopic robots. Unlike traditional robots, these robots can’t move on their own—they need the bacteria to propel them. The researchers set their sights on bacteria from the stomach, Wong says, because it’s easy to grow and can move around efficiently. The single-celled organisms are able to push the microbots, which are gear-shaped, by forming large groups or swarms. The researchers control the movement of the bacteria by shining a blue light at the center of the gear. This causes the bacteria to scatter to the edges of the robot and move it around in relation to where the light is being pointed.

Although they’ve yet to gain precise control over the swarms, Wong says these microbots might eventually be used to deliver drugs within the human body to kill cancerous tumors, for example. Carey adds that they might also one day be deployed in bodies of water to clean up toxic waste and other pollutants at the molecular level.

Very few robots can move around on anything but a hard, flat surface, notes IEEE Graduate Student Member Gavin Kenneally. He and a team of researchers at UPenn are trying to change that by studying the way lizards and other reptiles crawl and jump across rough, uneven terrain.

Justin Thomas, an IEEE graduate student member, demonstrated a drone that can fly, grab objects, and even perch to save energy. Kenneally, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, demonstrated RHex: a versatile hexapedal (six-legged) robot that can crawl, flip, and even leap over grass, mud, rocks, and sand. The robot has a central computer with six actuators that rotate its curved legs. The original robot was developed by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (more commonly known as DARPA) and has been adapted over the years to be both an educational tool and a research bot. Currently, its movements must be programmed beforehand. However, the researchers aim to develop an autonomous prototype that can deliver food and emergency supplies to dangerous areas and even rescue soldiers.

Elsewhere at the university, Justin Thomas and other researchers from the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab are taking a cue from hawks and other predatory birds. The IEEE graduate student member and Ph.D. candidate helped develop quadrotor drones outfitted with cameras that can fly, locate and grab objects, and even perch on a tree branch or the side of a cliff or a building and rest there to save energy.

Unfortunately, the original article is no longer available on the IEEE website –