I know it’s just a robot, with skin made of silicone and muscles powered by air pressure. But as its body moves with a perfectly smooth cascading contraction, my throat tightens and my stomach reconsiders breakfast. Because while this thing may technically be a robot, it pulsates every bit as organically as a maggot.
It’s a maggot robot.
Built for research led by postgraduate student Tianqi Wei from the University of Edinburgh, this miniature robot is science’s best attempt to roboticize the drosophila melanogaster (a fruit fly maggot), from its neural pathways right down to its methods of movement. The goal? To one day create the opposite of the big, centralized data AI run by companies like Google: tiny, mobile, low-power robotic systems that can operate with bits of self-sufficiency. Rather than having one big brain running humanity’s information, maybe it’s possible that countless smaller, independent brains could run it instead—much the way our world, with all of its plants and animals, has operated since the dawn of life. This decentralized network of robots could supply localized information to help calculate growth trajectories for farmers, for example, and maybe your commute and weather report, too.
If that sounds a bit heady, remember, this is academic research with a page-full of exploratory outcomes. But maggots are a promising model for such systems because they have "a good balance between the scale of a nervous system and complexity of behaviors," says Wei. "A drosophila larva has only about one 1,000th of the neurons of a mouse, but still has complex behaviors that are easy to observe."
For Wei’s team, the hardest part was building the mechanics to enable the movements themselves. While maggot choreography is actually well studied, and the pneumatic robot itself uses relatively straightforward patterns of tightening and relaxing segments to move, miniaturizing the muscles, valves, and circuit board into this Subway sandwich-sized body was difficult. Analyzing the specific elasticity of the robot’s silicone body—a necessity to generate perfectly fluid movements like that pulsating wave of muscular contractions known as peristalsis, used for maggot movement, but also in places like our intestines—was challenging, too.
However, the even bigger design challenge seems like it might be to simply stomach this technology. Some scientists argue, quite convincingly, that our inherent disgust with maggots and rot have an evolutionary basis. (Those of us who were grossed out by rotting meat would have lived to reproduce children who were also grossed out by rotting meat.) But for Wei’s field of biologically inspired design, he has to study maggots extremely closely and replicate their behaviors.
"It is fine for me, and a lot of people who study fruit flies," says Wei. "Fruit flies in labs are for biological research and they live in a very clean environment. They are cleaner than wild animals and pets. They have a lot of things that are valuable to be studied, such as neural circuits and mechanics, so when I see them, I have the feeling of looking at sophisticated machinery."
Wei is confident that his own view of maggots would be contagious, too, if these robots were ever deployed in the real world. The team’s technique to create peristalsis could even be applied to machines within the human body (such as our GI tract), and Wei sees promise in using the maggot’s soft-bodied technology for robot arms that need to use a sensitive touch.
"When it applies to other fields, it could have other . . . motions which may lead people to think of it in other perspectives," says Wei. Indeed, just keep ‘em out of my refrigerator.