3D printed seahorse tails inspire tougher robots

Seahorses might not seem the ideal animal to inspire tough new robots, but torture-testing of 3D tail models suggests the whimsical creatures may be hardier than we think. Unlike most animal tails, which are circular in cross-section, seahorse tails are formed from square prisms, each surrounded by bony plates and interconnected by joints. Turns out, that unusual structure has some big advantages, which could lead to sturdy yet flexible search-and-rescue robots, or even new types of body-armor.

Since seahorses themselves aren't especially conducive to toughness testing, Michael M. Porter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson University, turned to 3D printing instead.

After producing a model of the square prism design of a seahorse tail, as well as a hypothetical cylindrical version for comparison, the two were twisted, bent, and even smacked about with a rubber mallet.

Facing crushing forces, the square 3D printed prototype turned out to be stiffer, stronger, and more resilient than its circular counterpart. It was also less likely to twist – having about half that flexibility than the circular example – though Porter suggests that could actually be working in the seahorse's favor.

For instance, should the animal be grabbing an object and twisting, the lowered flexibility could prevent its body from deforming. Both designs could be bent around 90-degrees.

While the research tells us a fair amount about aquatic development, it also has implications for robotics and other fields, which is where Porter intends to look to next. Although it's still early days, he's working with colleagues in the computer sciences and biology divisions at the university to figure out how to translate the square design to robot construction.

One possibility is a snake robot that could be used in search & rescue operations, slithering through rubble and around other obstacles, and potentially able to contract to fit into narrower spaces.

SOURCE Clemson University

IMAGE Maëlick