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.”

The Army's potential new robot battle buddies

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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. 

Biohybrid fish by Harvard University team
Tissue-engineered soft robotic ray that’s controlled with light. (Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach, CC BY-ND)

In general, robotics have become a large part of defense spending in recent years. In 2019 alone, a single Massachusetts-based robotics research company earned over $160 million in defense spending. Large defense contractors, like FLIR, are the go-to firms when the Army needs a new toy. 

NASA is also getting in on the biohybrid action. In a report from 2019, NASA researchers explained how biohybrids could be revolutionary when it comes to space exploration. The goal would be to use biohybrids “in situations that are ‘dangerous, dirty, or dull,'” and to “help keep astronauts safe and productive while conducting their lives in space and other planetary bodies.”

These biologically-enhanced robots could begin to replace animals still serving in the ranks. Military Working Dogs, for example, while extremely good at detecting drugs, explosives, or humans, are susceptible to the dangers of the battlefield. And, just like the noble war-horse, dogs and other highly trained animals — like those trained under the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program — will undoubtedly be phased out in favor of machines which can work longer, harder and don’t require food, water and specialized care. 

Could Biohybrids replace animals in war?
A research team extensively tests the Canine Auditory Protection System headgear with military working dogs and federal law enforcement working dogs, for wearability, usability, and comfort. The team also measures hearing protection effectiveness during helicopter operations and found a significant reduction in short-term hearing loss. (Zeteo Tech)

But Army robots are still highly limited and cannot perform the way a well-trained animal can. They are, essentially, remote-controlled devices that are unilateral in their application.

“Though impressive in their own right, today’s robots are deployed to serve a limited purpose then are retrieved some minutes later,” said Culver. “ARL wants robots to be versatile teammates capable of going anywhere Soldiers can and more, adapting to the needs of any given situation.”

Dr. Culver believes that by equipping robots with biological material, they could come to contend with and eventually outperform military animals.

“Organisms outperform engineered robots in so many ways,” he says. “Why not use biological components to achieve those remarkable capabilities?”