The ‘FlipperBot’ Is Almost as Cute as the Baby Sea Turtles It Mimics

This bio-inspired robot could help conserve and restore beaches as well as teach us about how our ancient aquatic ancestors evolved to walk on land

Baby sea turtles are an impressive example of nature’s engineering prowess. (Also, they are adorable.) The beaches on which they are born are plagued with predators looking to snatch up a quick turtle snack, and when the tiny turtles scramble out of their underground nests, their ability to hustle across the sand to the relative safety of the ocean determines if they live or die.

But anyone who has ever tried jogging through sand knows that moving on the shifting ground can be challenging. To make their way, sea turtles evolved a flexible flipper wrist that allows them to skim along without displacing too much sand. Not all of the turtles are expert crawlers, however. Some get stuck in ruts or tracks made by turtles before them.

Inspired by this ability and curious about why some turtles perform better than others, researchers from Georgia Tech and Northwestern University have built the FlipperBot, a bio-inspired robot that can navigate through granular surfaces like sand. ScienceNOW details the robot:

Based on footage of hatchlings collected on the Georgia coast, FBot reveals how the creatures exert a force that will propel them forward, without simply causing their limbs to sink into the sand. The flexible “wrist” of a turtle helps reduce such slipping, and prevents the creature from winding up with a snootful of sand.

Here, you can see the robot in action:

Using robots to reveal secrets of walking baby sea turtles

The researchers hope the robot may lend hints about beach restoration and conservation efforts. Discover details this idea from physicist Paul Umbanhowar:

Umbanhowar said understanding beach surfaces and how turtles move is important because many beaches in the United States are often subject to beach nourishment programs, where sand is dredged and dumped to prevent erosion.

“If you are restoring a beach, it might be the wrong kind of sand or deposited in a way that is unnatural,” Umbanhoward said. “In order for this turtle to advance, it has to generate these kind of thrust forces and it may be unable to get their flippers into it. We could say something about that given our models.”

Plus, the robot help explain how our distant ancestors managed to crawl out of the ocean and onto the land. The researchers hope to expand upon the FlipperBot to build a new robot that resembles our distant ancestor, the fish-amphibian hybrid Ichthyostega, ScienceNow reports.

“To understand the mechanics of how the first terrestrial animals moved, you have to understand how their flipper-like limbs interacted with complex, yielding substrates like mud flats,” the researchers said in a statement. “We don’t have solid results on the evolutionary questions yet, but this certainly points to a way that we could address these issues.”

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