North­eastern Uni­ver­sity biology pro­fessor Joseph Ayers is part of a team of sci­en­tists who have received a three-​​year, $600,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to create a fleet of micro-​​robots designed to locate explo­sive com­pounds from hun­dreds of thou­sands of live mines that have been hidden under­water since World War I. 

“The pri­mary need for robots is to do things that are either too boring or too dan­gerous for humans to do,” says Ayers, who directs the bio­mimetic under­water robot pro­gram at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass. “Mine hunting is the per­fect example of that.”

Over the last seven years, the syn­thetic biol­o­gist has become famous for designing the RoboLob­ster and Robo­Lam­prey — autonomous under­water robots that mimic the neu­ro­phys­i­ology and behavior of their real-​​life coun­ter­parts.

Designing a fully autonomous robot — or system of smaller robots — is the ulti­mate goal of the research, says Ayers, who has also cre­ated a robotic eel that uses synapses and neu­rons rather than cir­cuits and com­puter chips.

For his cur­rent project, Ayers will work with researchers at MIT, Boston Uni­ver­sity and Har­vard Med­ical School to create micro-​​robots using bac­teria that have been repro­grammed to detect explo­sive mate­rials, such as C4 and TNT, that have seeped from under­water mines into streams, rivers and oceans around the world. 

RoboLob­sters, Ayers says, would serve as “chap­er­ones” for the mini mine-​​seekers, which will light up when they detect explo­sives. “It is an engi­neering approach to mol­e­c­ular biology,” he says. “What we’re doing is basi­cally adding sensor or reporter genes to bac­teria and giving that bac­teria a lim­ited com­pu­ta­tion ability.”

The micro-​​robots will be able to process infor­ma­tion in a matter of mil­lisec­onds without relying on spe­cific algo­rithms that may limit their move­ments.

“Ani­mals never get stuck and can wiggle and squirm to get out of a tough spot,” Ayers says. “What we think ani­mals are doing is increasing the chaos in their ner­vous system and get­ting them­selves out of tight spots.”