Mon. Dec 11th, 2023
    Pleurocystitid: Inspiring Robotic Design and Understanding Evolutionary Biomechanics

    Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have collaborated with paleontologists from Spain and Poland to develop a soft robotic model of a pleurocystitid, an ancient echinoderm. This groundbreaking research, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, aims to explore evolutionary biomechanics and inspire new robotic designs, while also introducing a new field of study called Paleobionics.

    Traditional animal movement and design have heavily influenced modern-day mechanical systems, but they represent only a fraction of all the creatures that have existed throughout history. By utilizing fossil records and employing the principles of Softbotics—robotics with flexible electronics and soft materials—scientists can uncover insights from the past and better understand the evolutionary factors that have driven animal locomotion.

    The team from Carnegie Mellon University, led by Professor Carmel Majidi, has successfully constructed a soft robotic replica of the pleurocystitid, providing valuable insights into how this ancient marine organism might have moved. Using a combination of 3D printed elements and polymers, the researchers mimicked the flexible columnar structure of the pleurocystitid’s appendage, showing that it likely propelled itself by means of a muscular stem.

    Through their work, the researchers discovered that wide sweeping movements were the most effective for the pleurocystitid’s locomotion, and that increasing the length of the stem significantly increased the animal’s speed without requiring additional energy. These findings could have important implications for future robotic designs, as scientists aim to understand and adopt efficient locomotion strategies from organisms in nature.

    Looking ahead, the team plans to expand their research to explore other extinct animals, such as the first organisms that transitioned from sea to land. Conventional robot hardware cannot adequately study these creatures, highlighting the importance of Softbotics and Paleobionics in unlocking the secrets of ancient life.

    This innovative research not only provides exciting advancements in soft robotics and paleontology but also highlights the collaborative efforts between scientists and paleontologists. By bridging the gap between the past and present, this interdisciplinary approach promises to deepen our understanding of evolution and inspire future advancements in robotic design.


    What is a pleurocystitid?

    A pleurocystitid is an ancient echinoderm that lived approximately 450 million years ago. Echinoderms are a group of marine organisms that include modern-day starfish and sea urchins.

    What is Paleobionics?

    Paleobionics is a new field of study that combines paleontology and robotics. It aims to use soft robotics to understand the biomechanical factors that drove evolution by studying extinct organisms.

    What is Softbotics?

    Softbotics is an approach that uses soft materials, flexible electronics, and robotics to construct robot limbs and appendages. This field draws inspiration from biology and nature to develop robots with improved flexibility and adaptability.

    How does the research contribute to robotics?

    The research helps inspire new robotic designs by studying the locomotion strategies of ancient organisms. By adopting efficient motion patterns from nature, scientists aim to improve the movement capabilities of future robots.

    What are the future directions of this research?

    The team plans to explore other extinct animals, such as the first organisms that transitioned from sea to land. They also aim to continue collaborating with paleontologists to better understand extinct life forms and apply those insights to advance robotics.