Article image

Sea creatures of the past inspire the future of soft robots

In the fascinating intersection of ancient biology and cutting-edge technology, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are pioneering an innovative approach to soft robotics by drawing inspiration from the distant past. 

The team has designed a new soft robot based on computer simulations of the movement of an ancient marine animal that lived millions of years ago.

Soft robotics 

Soft robotics, a field dedicated to the creation of robots made from flexible materials, offers unparalleled advantages in terms of safety and adaptability, particularly in human interactions. 

These robots hold the promise of revolutionizing a wide array of applications, from medical devices that can navigate the delicate structures of the human body to sophisticated machines designed to operate in the challenging environments of the ocean or outer space.

Focus of the study 

The research was led by Richard Desatnik under the guidance of Philip LeDuc and Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon. In a unique collaboration with European paleontologists, Desatnik’s team analyzed the locomotive methods of ancient sea creatures to inform and enhance the design of soft robots. 

The focus was on pleurocystitids, a type of sea creature that thrived approximately 500 million years ago. The movement and structure of these animals provide valuable insights into potential robotic functionalities.

Learning from ancient animals

“We’ve learned a lot from modern creatures, but that’s only 1% of the animals that have existed during our planet’s history, and we want to see if there is something we can learn from the other 99% of creatures that once roamed the earth,” said Desatnik. 

“There are animals that were very successful for millions of years and the reason they died out wasn’t from a lack of success from their biology – there may have been a massive environmental change or extinction event.”

How the research was conducted

The research began with the examination of fossilized pleurocystitids, relatives of modern-day sea stars and sea urchins. Pleurocystitids are notable for their muscular stems or tails, which they used for movement. 

Using CT scans to accurately reconstruct the three-dimensional shape of these creatures, the team employed computer simulations to hypothesize how these ancient animals might have propelled themselves through the water. Based on the results, the team constructed a soft robot that emulates the pleurocystitid’s movements.

Key insights

The findings indicate that the pleurocystitids’ method of movement, particularly the sweeping motion of their stem, could have been an efficient means of navigating the ocean floor. Moreover, the evolution of a longer stem, as suggested by the fossil record, could have enhanced their speed without significantly increasing their energy expenditure. 

This insight has profound implications for the design of underwater soft robots, which could be employed in a variety of tasks, from geological surveying to the maintenance of underwater infrastructure.

Broader implications 

The researchers’ innovative approach, which they have termed “paleobionics,” represents a merger of paleontology and robotics. 

By studying extinct animals to inform the design of soft robots, they are not only advancing our understanding of historical life forms but also pioneering new possibilities in robotic movement and functionality. 

Desatnik will present the team’s findings at the 68th Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, scheduled for February 10-14, 2024, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day