450-Million-Year-Old Organism Finds New Life in Softbotics

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Carnegie Mellon researchers, working with Spanish and Polish paleontologists, have created a soft robot model of the pleurocystitid, an ancient echinoderm animal, to investigate evolutionary biomechanics and inspire new robot designs. Above is a pleurocytitid fossil and a pleurocytitid robot replica. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, along with paleontologists from Spain and Poland, used fossil data to create a soft robot model of Pleurocystitid. This marine organism, which lived about 450 million years ago, is believed to be one of the first echinoderms that could move using a muscular stem.

Breakthrough in animal movement and design

Recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS)the research seeks to broaden the modern perspective of animal design and movement by introducing a new field of study – Paleobionics – focused on using Softbotics, robotics with flexible electronics and soft materials, to understand the biomechanical factors that drove evolution using extinct organisms.

“Softbotics is another approach to inform science by using soft materials to construct flexible robotic limbs and appendages. Many fundamental principles of biology and nature can only be fully explained if we look back at the evolutionary timeline of how animals evolved. We are building robot analogs to study how locomotion has changed,” said Carmel Majidi, lead author and professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Insights from the past

Because humans’ time on Earth represents only 0.007% of the planet’s history, the modern-day animal kingdom that influences the understanding of evolution and inspires today’s mechanical systems is only a fraction of all creatures that have existed throughout history.

Using fossil evidence to guide their design and a combination of 3D printed elements and polymers to mimic the flexible columnar structure of the moving appendage, the team demonstrated that pleurocytitids could likely move across the seafloor using a muscular trunk that pushed the seabed along. animal forward.

Despite the absence of a contemporary analogue (echinoderms have since evolved to include modern starfish and sea urchins), pleurocystitids have been of interest to paleontologists because of their crucial role in echinoderm evolution.

Robotics inspired by nature

The team found that broad sweeps were likely the most effective movement and that increasing the length of the stem significantly increased the animals’ speed without forcing them to expend more energy.

“Researchers in the bio-inspired robotics community need to pick out key features worth adopting from organisms,” explains Richard Desatnik, PhD candidate and co-first author.

“Essentially, we need to decide on good locomotion strategies to get our robots moving. For example, should a starfish robot really use five limbs for locomotion or can we find a better strategy? added Zach Patterson, CMU alumnus and co-first author.

Future directions

Now that the team has demonstrated that they can use Softbotics to manipulate extinct organisms, they hope to investigate other animals, such as the first organism that could travel from sea to land – something that cannot be studied in the same way using conventional robotic hardware. .

“Reviving something that existed nearly 500 million years ago is exciting in itself, but what really excites us about this breakthrough is how much we can learn from it,” said co-author Phil LeDuc. and professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “We’re not just looking at fossils in the ground, we’re trying to better understand life by working with great paleontologists.”

Reference: “Soft robotics informs how an early echinoderm moved” by Richard Desatnik, Zach J. Patterson, Przemysław Gorzelak, Samuel Zamora, Philip LeDuc and Carmel Majidi, November 6, 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2306580120

The study was funded by the National GEM Consortium, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, the Government of Aragon’s ‘Aragosaurus’ project, “Severo Ochoa”, and the National Institute of Health.

Other contributors include Przemyslaw Gorzelak, Institute of Paleobiology, Polish Academy of Sciences, and Samuel Zamora, The Geological and Mining Institute of Spain.

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