March 16, 2012 at 1:16 PM ET
Toy-kit robots are helping a team of British scientists build artificial bones, a mind-numbing task their lab didn't want to outsource to expensive industrial research and manufacturing robots.
"LEGOs seemed like the simplest way," PhD student Daniel Strange at Cambridge University, explained in the video below.
He built and programmed Mindstorms to perform the task of dipping a bolt-like material in a beaker containing a calcium and protein solution, rinsing it, and then dipping it in a beaker with a phosphate and protein solution.
To build an artificial bone sample, this process has to be done many, many times.
"The great thing about the robots is once you tell them what to do they can do it precisely over and over and over again. So, a day later I can come back and see a fully-made sample," Strange said.
The video was produced to promote the Google Science Fair, an online science competition sponsored, in part, by the search engine and LEGO.
The research the video details is "real science," Strange and his adviser Michelle Oyen write in a blog post, and yielded a paper in Acta Biomaterialia on the properties of bone-like material made by the Mindstorms.
Human bone, they note, is an amazing material. Without it, our bodies would be a pile of goo on the floor. That's gotten scientists interested in finding ways to create artificial bone for uses ranging from implants to building skyscrapers.
The robotics kit from LEGO retails for about $280, quite a bargain compared to $400,000 price tag for the popular PR2 robot from Willow Garage that teams have hacked to do everything from scoop poop to fetch cold beer.
"Research is a funny thing because you might think we order everything out of scientific catalogs, but actually a lot of the things we use around the lab are household items and things we pickup at the local home goods store," Oyen notes in the video. "Our robots just fit in with that mindset."
-- via The Verge
-- John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.