FlipperBot moves through a bed filled with poppy seeds in the Georgia Tech School of Physics. (Photo : Gary Meek)
In an effort to further develop locomotion on granular surfaces, scientists have turned to an unlikely candidate for inspiration - the baby sea turtle, a creature known for its mad dash to the sea in an effort to escape overwhelming predation.
Based on research stemming from the turtles, a team consisting of members from Georgia Tech and Northwestern University created FlipperBot, which measures a little over 7 inches in length and is equipped with flexible wrists in order to mimic flipper movement.
"We are looking at different ways that robots can move about on sand," said Daniel Goldman, an associate professor in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We wanted to make a systematic study of what makes flippers useful or effective. We've learned that the flow of the materials plays a large role in the strategy that can be used by either animals or robots."
The researchers were turned on to the idea of baby turtles from a 2010 study, where they noticed that the turtles seem to move at the same speed no matter what surface they were on. This intrigued them, as most forms of locomotion run into certain obstacles on unfamiliar terrains.
"On soft sand, the animals move their limbs in such a way that they don't create a yielding of the material on which they're walking," Goldman explained. "That means the material doesn't flow around the limbs and they don't slip. The surprising thing to us was that the turtles had comparable performance when they were running on hard ground or soft sand."
As robotics makes longer and longer strides, and the idea of robots being integrated into our society grows less and less far-fetched, scientists from every field are busy tackling the various mobility issues that plague modern-day robots. By studying the flipper, which offers unique advantages and shares an evolutionary root with limbs such as our own, the team involved hopes to bring new ideas to the discussion table.
"A multi-modal robot might need to use paddles for swimming in water, but it might also need to walk in an effective way on the beach," Goldman said. "This work can provide fundamental information on what makes flippers good or bad. This information could give robot designers clues to appendage designs and control techniques for robots moving in these environments."
You can read the published study detailing the FlipperBot in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.