A new initiative from the United States Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory is seeking to build the next generation of battlefield robots. But unlike drones or first-generation four-legged robots like the Army’s Legged Locomotion and Movement Adaptation, or LLAMA, these new robots will fuse robot technology with actual muscle fibers. The goal, according to a recently-released video on the technology, is to develop a class of more agile and dynamic robots capable of operating in a wider range of environments and applications.

This program falls under a relatively new scientific approach to robotics called Biohybrid Robotics. Simply put, Biohybrid Robotics can be thought of as the inverse of a cyborg, or cybernetic organism. Where a cyborg is an entity consisting largely of biological material that is enhanced by technology, the majority of a biohybrid robot is technological but enhanced by biological material. In this case, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is hoping to replace mechanical actuators — which are inherently limited in their output — with muscle fibers that can adjust and evolve to meet the challenges of a dynamic battlespace. 

Although the application of biohybrid technology is still years away, experts believe it could be a breakthrough for robotics and the battlefield. Dr. Dean Culver, a research scientist at ARL, believes that biohybrids will be able to support soldiers in a much more comprehensive way because they’ll be able to overcome environmental anomalies much better than traditional robots.

“One obstacle that faces ground-based robots today is an inability to instantly adjust or adapt to unstable terrain,” Culver said. “Muscle actuation, though certainly not solely responsible for it, is a big contributor to animals’ ability to navigate uneven and unreliable terrain.” 

Biohybrid technology could allow robots to adjust their “envelope” or their overall body shape, making it easier for them to maneuver in tight spaces, or in real-time on a battlefield with evolving obstacles. 

“Similarly, flapping wings and flying organisms’ ability to reconfigure their envelope gives them the ability to dart here and there even among branches. In multi-domain operations, this kind of agility and versatility means otherwise inaccessible areas are now viable, and those options can be critical to the U.S. military’s success.”

Biohybrid technology has largely been an academic enterprise. A report on biohybrids from 2019 cites several university programs, including a Harvard team, that successfully created a biohybrid fish capable of swimming like a ray, and a Tokyo University group that designed small, finger-like biohybrids. But with ARL picking up the biohybrid ball, the technology is sure to get a boost.