Researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the USA, in collaboration with paleontologists from Spain and Poland, have created a soft robotic copy of a marine organism that existed nearly 450 million years ago.
It is believed that the so-called pleurocystitid was one of the first echinoderms, i.e. animals such as sea urchins, sea urchins and starfish, able to move using the muscles in its arm.
With their innovative work and invention, the scientists not only revived the prehistoric organism, but also founded a completely new field of study – paleobionics. It combines the field of softrobotics, i.e. soft robotics combining flexible electronics and soft materials, and focuses on their use and paleontology investigating extinct organisms and what biomechanical factors drove evolution.
“Soft robotics is another approach to setting a new direction for science and using soft materials to construct flexible robotic limbs and organs. “Many fundamental principles of biology and nature can only be fully explained when we look back in the evolutionary timeline to how animals evolved,” says Carmel Majidi, lead author of the invention and paper and professor of mechanical engineering at CMU.
“We build robotic replicas to study how movement has changed,” he adds.
Why and how did scientists make a robotic fossil?
In a world in which human history represents only 0.007 percent of the age of the Earth, our understanding of evolution and modern machine and mechanical systems is influenced by only a fraction of the creatures, however diverse, that inhabited the planet.
American, Spanish and Polish scientists therefore turned to images and records of fossils. Using computer simulations, they turned those into a digital model, which they then made from parts printed on a 3D printer and polymers to best imitate the flexible structure of the arm, or otherwise also the stem. With its help, the pleurocystitid probably moved on the sea floor, similar to how fish swim with their tails.
This 450-million-year-old animal has gained the attention of scientists and paleontologists for its key role in the evolution of echinoderms. Their work and subsequent study revealed that flapping or oscillating was probably the most efficient way to move, and the longer the limb, the greater the speed without the creature having to expend more energy.
“Researchers in biology-inspired robotics must seek out and select important extensions that are worth adapting from organisms,” adds co-author Richard Desatnik, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University.
According to his statement, engineers basically have to decide on the most suitable movement strategy when they want to move their robots. They can also consider whether, for example, a robotic starfish would need its five limbs, as is the case in nature, or whether they would find a more suitable way.
The ability of soft robotics to recreate even an extinct animal has prompted a team of scientists to next try to “reanimate” the very first organisms that made their way from the ocean to land, a phenomenon they have not yet been able to study using conventional hardware, and which could lead to for a better understanding of the development of life on Earth.
The report on the robot was published on Monday in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Przemyslaw Gorzelak from the Institute of Paleobiology at the Polish Academy of Sciences and Samuel Zamora from the Geological and Mining Institute in Spain also participated in its invention and study.