Seahorse tails could help improve robotics

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The surprisingly durable, square-shaped tail of the seahorse could help engineers develop and build next-gen robots that are more flexible and durable than currently possible, according to a new study published Friday in the journal Science.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the authors of the study found that the creature’s prehensile tail– comprised of roughly three-dozen square segments– could serve as the inspiration for new advances in the field of robotics.

Michael M. Porter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson University, and his colleagues wanted to know if the odd shape of the seahorse’s tail had any functional benefits, so they created both a 3D-printed model based on its square prism design and a hypothetical one that was cylindrical, then subjected them to a series tests to see which was more durable.

The researchers hit both tails with a rubber mallet, twisted them, and bent them, and found that the square prototype was stronger, stiffer, and more resilient than the cylindrical one. The square design prevented damage and enabled the structure to be more prehensile, and while both could bend about 90 degrees, the circular one was slightly less restricted.

Research could lead to improved search-and-rescue robots

In a statement, Porter explained that their analysis of the seahorse tail could inspire new types of armor, as well as improved search-and-rescue robots that move along the ground in a serpentine fashion to fit into tight spaces. It could also have defense and biomedical uses.

“We haven’t gotten that far with the applications side of things yet, but we see a lot of potential with this device because it’s so unique,” he said, noting that the next step is to build a robot using the information that he’s gathered about seahorse tails during the course of his research.

Porter told the Times that he initially began investigating sea horse tails while at the University of California-San Diego, as he was studying the composition of their skeletons. He was working on a steerable catheter at the same time, and found that a model that used a square cross section worked better than a round one designed to be inserted into veins.

“The square one… felt like it basically fit together better and just performed more robustly,” he said, “whereas the round one just didn’t really hold its shape well and just didn’t seem to fit together as well. So that’s what led to this idea of ‘Huh, I wonder if the square actually had some advantages over the circle, and how can we actually prove that it has those advantages?’”

In their paper, he and his co-authors wrote that their work “demonstrates that engineering designs are convenient means to answer elusive biological questions when biological data are nonexistent or difficult to obtain. In addition, understanding the role of mechanics in these biologically inspired designs may help engineers to develop seahorse-inspired technologies for a variety of applications in robotics, defense systems, or biomedicine.”


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