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Robot inspired by sea turtles uses flippers to navigate tough terrain

Robot inspired by sea turtles uses flippers to navigate tough terrain

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Robots inspired by the animal kingdom are already being designed to mimic plenty of creatures, from speedy cheetahs to slithering serpents. Now, researchers are welcoming yet another bio-inspired robot to join the menagerie: a 'bot built to emulate the movements of baby sea turtles.

In a new study published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, a team of physicists and engineers out of Georgia Tech and Northwestern University shared progress on "FlipperBot," a robot designed to emulate the strategies employed by young sea turtles in order to traverse both firm terrain and sand with equal ease.

The robot's creation started in nature itself, with a lengthy study on 25 hatchling sea turtles in their natural habitat. Researchers compiled data on the movement patterns of the turtles, namely how they were able to maintain their pace while zipping along sandy ground. That pace is important for the critters: immediately after hatching, the turtles need to make their way across sand and into water — away from eager predators on land.

As it turns out, the turtle's success came down to flexible wrists at the ends of each flipper. "On hard ground, they seemed to lock their wrists to move forward," study co-author Daniel Goldman, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, told The Verge. On sand, the turtles used a different tactic: they dug their limbs into the sand at a specific depth — "but not so much that the sand would flow around the limbs and slow them down," Goldman said — and then bent their wrists to propel themselves.

A wee robot... capable of traipsing through tricky terrain

Following that research, the team translated this flexible wrist principle to a robotic model, dubbed FlipperBot. With a little tweaking, they managed to develop a wee robot — weighing in at less than a pound — capable of traipsing through tricky terrain using the same patterns as its biological peer.

Obviously, the work — which was funded, in part, by the US Army Research Laboratory — could offer new tricks for the development of robots that use flippers to either traverse land or water, or be versatile enough to do both. But that's actually not the top priority. Instead, Goldman and his colleagues hope that robotic models like this one yield a better understanding of animal locomotion. "We're able to study precise movements in robot models that is much harder to do in the field," he noted. The work might also play a role in understanding evolution. "I hope we can use models like this to understand [more] about the flipper-like appendages from the earliest animals to walk on land," Goldman said.