The Evolution of Robotic Design: A Paleobionics Approach
Many robots draw inspiration from existing animals, but few take cues from creatures long extinct. When designing a new machine, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University decided to look back over 500 million years for ideas. The result of their endeavor, which was unveiled at the 68th Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, is an underwater soft robot based on one of the ancient ancestors of the sea urchin.
Exploring Ancient Seas
Pleurocystitids once roamed the oceans approximately half a billion years ago, around the same time jellyfish are believed to have made their appearance. These creatures, which served as precursors to invertebrates like sea stars, were equipped with a muscular, tail-like structure that likely enhanced their maneuverability underwater. By studying CT scans of fossilized remains, researchers were able to input the data into a computer program for mobility simulations.
While the exact method of movement employed by pleurocystitids remains a mystery, researchers theorize that they utilized sweeping, side-to-side tail motions to propel themselves across the ocean floor. Fossil records suggest that the animal’s tail lengthened over time, allowing for increased speed without requiring more energy. Building upon this information, engineers created their own soft robot inspired by pleurocystitids.
The Legacy of Extinct Creatures
Despite the awkward movements of the robotic replica, Richard Desatnick, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon working under the guidance of mechanical engineering professors Phil LeDuc and Carmel Majidi, believes that the ancient animal deserves more credit than it receives. Desatnick suggests that the demise of certain species is often attributed to environmental changes or extinction events, rather than shortcomings in their biological makeup.
Looking to the Future
By delving into Earth’s animal past, researchers hope to pave the way for innovative robotic creations of the future. The field of paleobionics, which involves studying prehistoric creatures to inform modern technology, offers a wealth of inspiration for novel designs. The Carnegie Mellon team envisions future iterations of their soft robot fulfilling a range of functions, from exploring hazardous geological sites to assisting with underwater repairs. With continued advancements, more agile versions of the robo-pleurocystitid may one day navigate the waters, drawing upon the rich history of Earth’s inhabitants for guidance.
In conclusion, the exploration of extinct creatures like the pleurocystitid opens up new possibilities for robotic design and innovation. By tapping into the vast reservoir of biomechanical inspiration offered by Earth’s past inhabitants, researchers can guide the evolution of cutting-edge technology and pave the way for future advancements in the field of robotics.