This week was a big week for shape shifters. In Japan, researchers at Tohoku University and Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology announced that it had successful developed a shape-shifting molecular robot. The amoeba-like robot uses biomolecules, such as DNA and protein, to integrate molecular machines into an artificial cell membrane. In response to different DNA signals it then shifts shapes, like Terminator’s T-1000.
Head researcher, Shin-ichiro Nomura is aiming to have his molecular robot function inside a living cell. In his words, “that’s kind of a frontier,” having a robot implanted inside the nucleus of an organism to perform diagnostics and proactively fix cellular machinery. “It’s a little dreamy,” reflects Nomura. His amoeba-bot is already the size of less than one micrometer, small enough to fit in a human’s bloodstream.
Nomura’s system of molecular robotics is about the size and consistency of a living organism. It is a fluid-filled sac containing only biological and chemical components —currently 27 of them. The molecular components work in concert to stretch and change the shape of the sac, propelling it with cell-like motion through a fluid environment. The motion can be turned on and off with DNA signals that respond to light. It is curious to think if Nomura combined his molecular robots with the new liquid-metal technology coming out of RMIT University in Australia. The RIMT liquid metal was discovered last year and is currently being deployed in primitive machines.
According to RIMT’s Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, “Using this discovery, we were able to create moving objects, switches and pumps that could operate autonomously – self-propelling liquid metals driven by the composition of the surrounding fluid. Eventually, using the fundamentals of this discovery, it may be possible to build a 3D liquid metal humanoid on demand – like the T-1000 Terminator.” (On second thought, maybe I won’t introduce them…)
The idea of shape-shifting could also be deployed in the next generation of Mars rovers. NASA this week was granted a patent for, “Locomotion of amorphous surface robots.” The purpose of the above worm-like jelly robot is to increase mobility as recent rovers have been stuck in Mars dust, like a Buick Skylark in Alabama mud. Essentially (and described below in greater detail) the locomotion would be derived by shifting weight via fluid movements between compartments inside the rover and its air valves. The inside of the fluid sack would be filled with memory shape polymers, while the exterior would be covered in bumps to enable it to grip surfaces.
“Once deployed on a surface, conventional rovers are typically propelled along a surface,” according to the patent summary. “In particularly sandy or loamy soil environments such as the lunar or Martian surfaces, conventional propulsion devices may become fouled and stuck.”