Tufts University

An Interdisciplinary Incubator

Advanced Technology LaboratoryBy focusing on how animals move, a group of Tufts researchers is changing how we think about (and may one day build) robots.

Located a half mile from the Tufts Medford campus at 200 Boston Avenue, the Advanced Technology Laboratory acts as an incubator to bring researchers together and to speed up the evolution of ideas. Engineers use biological principles to help design and build structures, which in turn give biologists better ways to explain what they observe.

Biomimetics, or mimicking nature, specifically in the form of caterpillars, was just such an interdisciplinary problem, and Barry Trimmer saw it as a way to galvanize researchers across disciplines.

"We began to think about ways we might design robots the way animals move around," says Trimmer, professor of biology and the director of the ATL's Biomimetic Devices Laboratory at the Advanced Technology Laboratory, or ATL. "There aren't any machines—any equivalent robots available—that can achieve the same kind of mobility as animals. My dog is capable of running through the woods, swimming in the water, climbing over bushes, and doing things that no robot on the planet currently can do."

Form and Function

Unlike dogs and other vertebrates, caterpillars don't have bones associated with their muscles to provide a system of levers.

"Though we know lots about vertebrate muscles—just shelves of books, because scientists are vertebrates—we don't know a whole lot about caterpillars' muscles, almost nothing, you could put it in one hand," says William Woods, a postdoctoral associate in the Tufts biology department.

Yet caterpillars can crawl up walls, grasp narrow branches or stems with sticky Velcro-like feet, and rotate their bodies almost full-circle as they sense their environment.

"It rapidly became clear that this was a very difficult problem that needed expertise in all sorts of areas outside of biology."

— Barry Trimmer

"We got very excited about how an invertebrate animal like a caterpillar or octopus is able to control these very fluid, flexible and complicated movements using a very small nervous system," says Trimmer, who has worked with the tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, for more than 20 years.

Soft-bodied biomimetics is a monumental task, especially when considering that nature has had millions of years of evolution to test adaptations and try new ways to solve problems. Despite nature's head start, the ATL crucible creates a space for Tufts engineers and scientists to turn up the heat on generating ideas.

"Toward the beginning of this project, we realized the best way for this to work was to have all of the different disciplines working together in the same laboratory space," Trimmer says. "It rapidly became clear that this was a very difficult problem that needed expertise in all sorts of areas outside of biology."

"The origins of the Advanced Technology Laboratory came from a collection of faculty who were seeing more and more opportunities for interdisciplinary research," says David Kaplan, chair of the biomedical engineering department and one of the primary investigators at the Advanced Technology Laboratory, or ATL.

Advanced Technology Laboratory

Arts, sciences, and engineering faculty members and graduate students discuss ways to control the movements of the soft-body robot.

The push for a collaborative research space like the ATL came not only from interested faculty, but also from Tufts' university-wide commitment to interdisciplinary research and the School of Engineering's strategic vision to create an interdisciplinary facility. Help from Tufts University and a $730,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation gave legs—albeit squishy ones—to the creation of the ATL complex and the Soft-Bodied Robots project.

Understanding soft materials is one of the first steps to building a robot that, like a caterpillar, couldn't be made out of traditional hard materials.

"Nature does a much better job than we do in creating materials," says Luis Dorfmann, an associate professor in the civil and environmental engineering department and an expert in soft materials. "If you look at the materials we came up with, it's very impressive—steel, concrete—and it's used everywhere. But now look at nature. The materials which nature develops, they change, they transform, they grow, they age. If you cut your skin, it heals itself." (continued)

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Profile written by Julia C. Keller, communications specialist for the Tufts University School of Engineering, for the Spring 2008 issue of Alma Matters.

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photography

This story originally ran online on June 2, 2008.