Softbotics Finds New Life in a 450 Million-year-Old Organism

Softbotics Finds New Life in a 450 Million-year-Old Organism

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering collaborated with paleontologists from Spain and Poland to create a soft robotic replica of pleurocystitid, a marine organism that existed nearly 450 million years ago and is thought to be one of the first echinoderms capable of movement via a muscular stem.

The study, which was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, aims to broaden modern perspectives on animal design and movement by introducing a new field of study called paleobionics, which uses softbotics, robotics with flexible electronics and soft materials, to understand the biomechanical factors that drove evolution using extinct organisms.

“Softbotics is yet another approach to informing science that employs soft materials to build flexible robot limbs and appendages.” Many fundamental concepts of biology and nature can only be properly explained by looking back at how animals evolved over time. “We’re creating robot analogs to investigate how locomotion has evolved,” stated Carmel Majidi, principal author and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Softbotics Finds New Life in a 450 Million-year-Old Organism

With humans only accounting for 0.007% of the planet’s history, the modern-day animal kingdom that affects evolutionary theory and inspires today’s mechanical systems is merely a fraction of all animals that have ever existed.

The team demonstrated that pleurocystitids were likely able to move over the sea floor by means of a muscular stem that pushed the animal forward, 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. Despite the lack of a modern-day counterpart (echinoderms have since developed to include modern-day starfish and sea urchins), paleontologists have been intrigued by pleurocystitids due to their key role in echinoderm evolution.

The researchers discovered that large sweeping movements were most likely the most effective, and that lengthening the stem considerably boosted the animals’ speed without requiring them to exert more energy.

“Researchers in the bio-inspired robotics community need to pick and choose important features worth adopting from organisms,” said Richard Desatnik, Ph.D. candidate and co-first author.

“To get our robots moving, we need to decide on good locomotion strategies.” For example, does a starfish robot truly need five limbs for mobility, or is there a better way?” Zach Patterson, a CMU alumnus and co-first author, added his voice.

Now that the team has shown that they can utilize softbotics to create extinct organisms, they intend to investigate other animals, such as the first organism to move from water to land—something that cannot be explored in the same way with traditional robot technology.

“Bringing new life to something that existed nearly 500 million years ago is exciting in and of itself, but what really excites us about this breakthrough is how much we will be able to learn from it,” said co-author and Carnegie Mellon University Professor of Mechanical Engineering Phil LeDuc. “We aren’t just looking at fossils in the ground, we are trying to better understand life through working with amazing paleontologists.”

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