Case Western Reserve University has developed a 3D printed robot that can be mounted on a sea slug’s mouth to help it explore the seas.

The sea slug’s muscle and outer shell makes what’s becoming known as a ‘biohybrid’ robot, that comprises mechanical and biological parts.

“We’re building a living machine—a biohybrid robot that’s not completely organic—yet,” said Victoria Webster, a PhD student who is leading the research.

It moves when it’s triggered by electrical stimuli, making the creature move forward and explore the sea’s floor, just as a sea slug would in its complete form. However, it can only move very slowly at the moment – in fact, the two-inch ‘bot can only move at a speed on 0.4cm a minute right now.

“We want the robots to be compliant, to interact with the environment,” Webster added. “One of the problems with traditional robotics, especially on the small scale, is that actuators—the units that provide movement—tend to be rigid.”

The researchers chose to use a sea slug, because the species is known to be pretty hardy, withstanding sudden changes in temperature and salinity, meaning it can survive even the harshest conditions.

Although the idea is in its early stages, Case Western Reserve University thinks it’s a more cost-effective way of sending swarms of robots out to explore undersea hazards, such as a toxic leak. It may also be used on search and rescue missions, to find a plane’s black box, for example.

“We’re creating a robot that can manage different tasks than an animal or a purely manmade robot could,”Roger Quinn, the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering and director of Case Western Reserve’s Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory said.