450-million-year-old creature finds new life in softballs

Carnegie Mellon researchers, working with Spanish and Polish paleontologists, have developed a soft robotic model of the ancient echinoderm Pleurocystid, to explore evolutionary biology and inspire new robot designs. Above is a pleurocystid fossil and a pleurocystid robot replica. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Mechanics, along with paleontologists from Spain and Poland, used the fossil record to build a soft robotic model of a pleurocystid. This marine creature, which lived about 450 million years ago, is considered one of the earliest echinoderms that could move using muscle rods.

Breakthroughs in animal movement and design

Recently released Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)The research seeks to broaden the modern view of animal design and movement, a new field of study called paleobionics — a new field of study that aims to use membotics, flexible electronics, and robotics with soft materials — to understand the biomechanical factors that drove evolution using extinct species.

„Softbotics is another approach to inform science by using soft materials to create 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 robotic analogies to study how locomotion has changed,” said said Carmel Majidi, lead author and professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Insights into the past

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

Using fossil evidence, their design and a combination of 3D-printed components and polymers to mimic the flexible columnar structure of the moving link, the team demonstrated that pleurocystidids could move across the ocean floor with a muscular shaft. Animal forward.

Although lacking a present-day analogue (echinoderms evolved to include modern-day starfish and sea urchins), pleurocystitids are of interest to paleontologists because of their important role in echinoderm evolution.

Robotics inspired by nature

The team determined that broad sweeping movements were the most effective movement, and that increasing trunk length significantly increased the animal’s speed without requiring more energy.

„Researchers in the bio-inspired robotics community must pick and choose which features are important to adopt from living organisms,” explained PhD candidate and co-first author Richard Desatnik.

„Essentially, we need to determine good locomotion strategies for moving our robots. For example, does a starfish robot really need to use 5 limbs for locomotion, or can we find a better strategy?” Zach Patterson, CMU alumnus and co-first author.

Future directions

Now that the team has demonstrated that Softbotics can be used to create extinct species, they hope to study other animals, the first to be able to travel from sea to land — something that cannot be studied in the same way using conventional robotic hardware. .

„Bringing new life to something that existed nearly 500 million years ago is exciting, but what really excites us about this advance 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 amazing paleontologists.”

Reference: Richard Desatnick, Zach J. „Soft Robotics Reveals How Early Echinoderms Moved,” Patterson, Przemysław Korcelak, Samuel Zamora, Philippe Leduc, and Carmel Majidi, 6 Nov. 2023. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2306580120

This study was funded by the National GEM Consortium, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Oceanic Partnership Program, the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, the Government of Aragon’s Project „Aracosaurus”, „Severo”. Ochoa”, and the National Institutes of Health.

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

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