A sea creature extinct for half a billion years inspired a new soft robot

Many robots are inspired by existing animals, but few are inspired by extinct creatures. To design their own new machine, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University went back more than 500 million years in time for guidance. Their result, presented during the 68th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Societyis an underwater soft robot inspired by one of the oldest ancestors of the sea urchin.

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Pleurocystitids were swimming in the oceans about half a billion years ago – around the same time experts now think jellyfish first appeared. Although they were ancient precursors to invertebrates such as sea stars, pleurocystitids had a muscular, tail-like structure that likely allowed them to better maneuver underwater. After studying CT scans of the animal's fossilized remains, the researchers fed the data into a computer program to analyze and provide mobility simulations.

Although no one knew exactly how the pleurocystitids moved, the team determined that the most logical possibility likely involved lateral movements of the tail that allowed it to propel itself across the ocean floor. This theory is also supported by fossil records, which indicate that animals' tails lengthened over time to make them faster without requiring a much greater expenditure of energy. From there, the engineers built their own soft, tailed robot pleurocystitid.

To the casual viewer, the images of the mechanical monster moving awkwardly across the ground may seem to indicate why the pleurocystitid has long since disappeared. But according to Richard Desatnick, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon under mechanical engineering professors Phil LeDuc and Carmel Majidi, the ancient animal probably deserves more credit.

“There are animals that have been very successful for millions of years and the reason they died is not due to a lack of success in their biology: there may have been a massive environmental change or an extinction event,” Desatnick said in a statement. recent profile.

The geological record certainly supports such an argument. Additionally, given that today's animal world represents barely one percent of all creatures that roam, swim, or hover above the planet, there remains a wealth of potential biomechanical inspirations to explore. Desatnick and his colleagues hope their proof-of-concept pleurocystitid will help inspire new entries into a field they call paleobionics, the study of Earth's animal past to guide some of tomorrow's robotic creations.

The Carnegie Mellon team believes that future iterations of their software robot could offer a variety of uses, including studying dangerous geological sites and helping repair underwater machinery. More agile pleurocystitid robots could one day glide across water. Even if the nearby starfish and sea urchins didn't recognize it, none of them would exist without their shared source of inspiration.

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