Scientists Build Robot Based on a 500-Million-Year-Old Design

A team of scientists is creating robots based on the movement of ancient animals, including pleurocystitids, a sea creature from 500 million years ago. Richard Desatnik, a Carnegie Mellon University scientist, collaborated with European paleontologists to build the “soft robots.”

Soft robots are designed to have mechanical properties like those of living tissues, providing flexibility and increasing safety in human interactions. Suited for use in medical devices, they improve efficiency in various tasks and activities. Given their flexibility, they may be helpful in such applications as ocean or space exploration, according to a report by the Biophysical Society.

Rendering of pleurocystitid (left) next to the soft robot they modeled after the ancient sea creature.
Credit: Image courtesy of Richard Desatnik.

The approach is called “paleobionics,” using extinct animals to inform soft robotic design, which can potentially increase understanding of evolution and biomechanics.

The scientists began building the robots using fossils of an extinct creature that used a muscular stem, like a tail, to propel themselves. The team used CT scans to understand the creature’s shape and computer simulations to illustrate how it moved. They then built a soft robot that accurately portrayed the prehistoric creature, which is like modern-day sea stars and sea urchins.

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