The Potential of Paleobionics: Exploring Soft Robotic Design Inspired by Extinct Animals

The field of soft robotics offers a promising avenue for the creation of robots that are not only flexible and safe for human interactions but also well-suited for various applications, ranging from medical devices to enhancing efficiency in different tasks. In the pursuit of expanding our understanding of robotic locomotion, Richard Desatnik, alongside the labs of Philip LeDuc and Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University, has turned to the past. Through the study of ancient animals such as pleurocystitids, a sea creature that lived around 500 million years ago, Desatnik and his team seek to gather insights that can shape the design of soft robots. During the 68th Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, Desatnik presented their findings, shedding light on the potential of paleobionics in soft robotics.

Desatnik and his colleagues began their process by examining fossils of pleurocystitids, a species related to present-day sea stars and sea urchins. These ancient creatures possessed a muscular stem, functioning as a tail, that enabled their movement. To gain a better understanding of the 3D shape of pleurocystitids, CT scans were utilized. Through computer simulations, the team hypothesized the potential ways in which these creatures propelled themselves through the water. Armed with these insights, they proceeded to build a soft robot that mimicked the locomotion of the prehistoric creature.

The work conducted by Desatnik and his team revealed fascinating discoveries about the movement and capabilities of pleurocystitids. They found that a sweeping motion of the stem could have facilitated the creature’s gliding along the ocean floor. Moreover, their research suggested that the development of a longer stem, observed in the fossil record, could have significantly increased the creature’s speed without necessitating a substantial increase in energy consumption. These findings open up new possibilities and inspirations for the design of underwater soft robots.

The insights derived from studying ancient creatures like pleurocystitids have far-reaching implications for the future of soft robotics. Desatnik highlights the potential applications of underwater soft robots in geologic surveying and the maintenance of underwater machinery. These robots could play a vital role in conducting surveys in challenging environments or performing critical repairs where human intervention is difficult.

Desatnik and his team refer to their approach as “paleobionics” – the integration of extinct animals into soft robotic design. This unique concept not only offers practical applications but also provides a fascinating lens through which we can gain insights into evolution, biomechanics, and the movement capabilities of soft robots. By exploring the vast array of extinct creatures, we expand our knowledge beyond the 1% of modern animals that have been extensively studied, providing us with a deeper understanding of the possibilities offered by soft robotics.

The study of soft robotics continues to push boundaries and explore new avenues for innovation. Through paleobionics, Richard Desatnik and his team have demonstrated the potential of integrating extinct animals into soft robotic design. By taking inspiration from ancient creatures like pleurocystitids, their research has revealed exciting insights about the movement and capabilities of soft robots. The application of these findings in underwater robotics opens up new possibilities for geologic surveying and infrastructure maintenance. Ultimately, the exploration of extinct animals in soft robotic design not only expands the field’s practical applications but also enhances our understanding of evolution, biomechanics, and the incredible potential of soft robots.


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