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Small Creatures With Stronger Punch Can Help Engineers Build Faster Robots

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Engineers can learn a thing or two by observing how small creatures like mantis shrimps use their exoskeleton spring to move swiftly. A recent research analyzed how the motor-spring-latch system in smaller creatures can influence the way robots are made.  ( Tobias Schwarz | Getty Images )

Biologists are baffled why small creatures can punch powerfully. Their secret lies in a spring-like exoskeleton that functions either as offense or defense.

A study, first published in 2004, noted mantis shrimp's extraordinary ability to punch shockwaves at 80 kilometers per hour. Mantis shrimps, which are abundant in the Indian and Pacific oceans, have dactyl clubs instead of muscles. Their punching force is so powerful that it could punch through the shells of crabs or nails.

It would take a 70-kilogram person to exert approximately 375,000 pounds of force in less than a second.

In 2004, Sheila Patek, the lead author of the study, and her team at the University of California-Berkeley took high-speed footages of mantis shrimps. They hypothesized that other species may also have the same kind of acceleration capability.

Abundant Power

In a study published April 26 in the journal Science, Patek and her colleagues at Duke University tested their hypothesis in 100 different species. They found that other animal species have repeated acceleration power similar to mantis shrimps.

Other animals with spring power capabilities include the South American trap-jaw ants, frogs, and locusts. Chameleons can swiftly shoot their tongues out at 11 miles per hour in just a tenth of a second.

Certain fungi, the microbe hydra, as well as plants like the Venus flytrap and aquatic bladderwort, are also capable of accelerating their speed when a prey or a potential enemy is around.

Unlike muscle-powered creatures, spring-powered creatures do not require space to generate force. Instead, in the case of mantis shrimps, they store their energy in their dactyl clubs before they release it swiftly.

"We've known for a long time that small biological things are capable of producing power that muscles alone cannot-and we've known that springs and latches are involved, because we could see them," Patek said.

Nature's Role In Robotics

The spring and latch systems as demonstrated in Patek's study show valuable insights about the future of robotics. The researchers noted that the faster the muscles move, the less effort it exerts.

Although scientists understand that spring power diminishes as sizes increase, Patek said that they have determined the limit of the spring system.

Patek said that the synergy that occurs in a motor-spring-latch system help biologists understand how species have evolved, and engineers to develop smaller, faster, and more efficient robotic systems.

"Each organism has developed a unique solution to a specific problem," said Mark Ilton, a soft matter physicist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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