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Dr. Daniel J. Preston directs the Preston Innovation Laboratory at Rice University conducting research at the intersection of energy, materials, and fluids. He is a recipient of the NSF CAREER Award, the ASME Old Guard Early Career Award, and the Energy Polymer Group Certificate of Excellence. His group’s recent work has been published in PNAS, Science Advances, Science Robotics, Advanced Intelligent Systems, Advanced Science, and ACS Nano. His lab is funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, among other sources. Dr. Preston earned his B.S. (2012) in mechanical engineering from the University of Alabama and his M.S. (2014) and Ph.D. (2017) in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following his graduate degrees, he trained as a postdoctoral fellow from 2017–2019 at Harvard University in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology prior to joining Rice University as an assistant professor in July 2019.


Beyond Bioinspiration: Leveraging Biotic Materials for Robotics 

Designs perfected through evolution have informed bioinspired animal-like robots that mimic the gait of cheetahs, the compliance of jellyfish, and the locomotion and behavior of insects. Meanwhile, biohybrid robots go a step further by incorporating living materials directly into engineered systems. Bioinspiration and biohybridization have led to new, exciting research, but biotic materials—non-living materials derived from living organisms—have remained underutilized, despite having played a role in human development since when our early ancestors wore animal hides as clothing and used bones for tools. Recognizing this opportunity, we repurposed an inanimate spider as a ready-to-use actuator requiring only a single fabrication step, initiating the area of “necrobotics” in which biotic materials are used as robotic components. The unique mechanism of movement in spiders—relying on hydraulic pressure rather than antagonistic muscle pairs to extend their legs—results in a necrobotic gripper that naturally resides in its closed state and can be opened by applying pressure. The necrobotic gripper is capable of holding objects with irregular geometries and exhibits a favorable ratio of gripping force to gripper weight. Furthermore, the gripper innately offers force-limiting compliance to handle delicate objects. We expect that necrobotics will extend to incorporate biotic materials derived from other creatures, including insects, for actuation, articulation, and locomotion in robots.

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