Robot engineers are constantly looking at the animal kingdom for inspiration. From cheetahs, to dogs, to cockroaches, to moths, all creatures have body features and natural abilities that help experts develop machines better suited for the task at hand.
The newest source of inspiration to be added to the list is the seahorse. Robot engineers at Clemson University say that the creatures have an especially durable body amour due to its bony structure, and a useful, flexible tail that can easily wrap around objects due to its square shape, all while also exhibiting a great deal of force.
Resent studies looking at the marine creature have answer a long pondered question in the scientific community by finding that the seahorse’s square shaped tail is better at withstanding attacks than a more common, round shaped tail. The fish often use this appendage to grab various objects or plants, and tests using an oversized 3D model have shown how much more effective this shape is.
The study, published in the journal Science, has revealed that the seahorse’s tail is made up of no less than 36 different segments. Each of them has kind of a square appearance and defies all expectation.
Dr. Michael Porter, lead investigator and mechanical engineer over at Clemson University (South Carolina), gave a statement informing that “Almost all animal tails have circular or oval cross-sections, but not the seahorse’s. We wondered why. We found that the squared-shaped tails are better when both grasping and amour are needed”.
Miriam Ashley-Ross from the Wake Forest University was not associated with the study, but gave a statement of her own explaining that when a living organism decides to deviate from what’s normally found in nature, there’s almost always a good biomechanical reason. All one has to do is look for clues that reveal specific problems that the animals are facing in their natural habitats. They are typically the reason behind the atypical evolution.
Dr. Porter first started examining seahorses while he was working on developing a steerable catheter. For whatever reason, his initial prototype was designed with a square cross section. He then tried to change it into a round one, for that is the shape more common in nature and he intended to insert it into veins. But what he realized was that the second version didn’t work anywhere near as well as the first one.
He gave a statement sharing that the square design simply felt like it fit together better and that it performed more robustly, compared to the round design, which held its shape together poorly, and didn’t really feel like it fit well together.
The seahorse’s armor is made out of “L” shaped bone plates that overlap beneath the animal’s skin. They run down the creature’s entire body, including the tip of its tail, but they do get smaller towards said tip. The corners from the L shapes are the ones that form the fish’s square cross section.
The researchers used this knowledge to build an oversized 3D model of the seahorse’s square shaped tail, and compared it to another 3D model of a round shaped tail, in order to assess which one is more useful to the creature.
They found that the square shaped tail segments slided right past one another and retained their shape when Dr. Porter and his team applied force that mimicked a set of teeth or a beak that were trying to crush the fish. The round shaped tail segments did nor fair so well and ended up being warped by the pressure.
What’s more, the researchers twisted the two different 3D tails and found that the square one did not encounter much difficulty going back to its initial shape after the twisting stopped. On the other hand, the round one remained distorted.
The square shaped tail also proved to be much better than the round shaped tail at grasping various things, they have flat sides which don’t slide off of surfaces quite so easily, and lend themselves to a much more powerful grip.
Dr. Porter hopes that his study will lead to designing robots that are more flexible, but also stronger and much harder to break. He mentioned that while robot engineers generally prefer to build stiff shapes because they are easier to control, Mother nature is better at building shapes that are strong enough not to break, while also making them flexible enough to be able to accomplish a multitude of tasks. He says that this is exactly why researchers should start looking at animals more and more when designing the next generation of robots.
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