A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, along with paleontologists from Spain and Poland, have used fossil evidence to create a soft robotic replica of a marine organism that lived 450 million years ago. This creature, called pleurocystitid, is one of the earliest known echinoderms capable of movement using a muscular stem.
The team’s findings have been published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). This research aims to introduce a new field of study called Paleobionics by using Softbotics, a technology that combines flexible electronics and soft materials in robotics, to understand the biomechanical factors that drove the evolution of extinct organisms.
Carmel Majidi, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, explained that Softbotics uses soft materials to construct flexible robot limbs and appendages. By studying the evolutionary timeline, researchers can understand how animals have evolved and build robot analogues to study how locomotion has changed.
The team used fossil evidence to guide their design and a combination of 3D printed elements and polymers to mimic the flexible structure of the moving appendage. They found that pleurocystitids likely moved over the sea bottom using a muscular stem to push themselves forward. Their wide sweeping movements were deemed to be the most effective, and increasing the length of the stem increased their speed without requiring more energy.
The team now aims to explore other extinct animals using Softbotics, with the hope of learning more about ancient life. By working alongside paleontologists, they believe they can gain valuable insights into the evolution and movement of ancient creatures.
In addition to making this breakthrough, the team hopes to use this technology to study the first organism capable of traveling from sea to land. This is a feat that cannot be studied in the same way using conventional robot hardware.