Researchers in California made use of the mouth and teeth of sea urchins as inspiration in developing a new claw-like device that can collect sediment samples during expeditions to other planets.

Sea urchins have long been known for their intricate mouthpiece, consisting of powerful muscles and sharp curved teeth capable of cutting and boring holes even into the hardest of rocks. A sizeable colony of these marine creatures can even decimate whole kelp forests simply by uprooting the existing seaweed and chipping away through the rocks.

Marine biologists and engineers at the University of California, San Diego took a cue from the sea urchin's impressive mouthpiece to develop new equipment for future Mars rovers.

They used how the teeth and muscles in the creature's mouth were arranged to create a robotic claw that can gather sediments samples better than the shovels that space vehicles have been using in the past.

"Our goal was a bioinspired device that's more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples from different areas, and won't disturb the surrounding area like a shovel would," Michael Frank, a PhD candidate at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, said.

Frank and his colleagues focused their efforts in analyzing the importance of the keel, a T-shaped structure found running down the middle part of each of the sea urchin's teeth.

Based on the team's simulations, the creature's teeth that had keels received 16 percent less stress compared to those that did not have keels when they were exposed to a 10-pound load. Those that had the T-shaped structure also had a 4 percent higher mass than those that did not have it.

Building the Mechanical Mouthpiece

The researchers made use of engineering to replicate the structure of the sea urchin's mouth. Their first design closely resembled the natural framework of the mouthpiece but failed to collect sand samples.

The second one had flattened teeth so that it would be able to scoop sediment samples better, but the mouthpiece had trouble opening properly.

The third version of the mechanical mouthpiece featured teeth that were connected to other parts of the device differently, which allowed it to operate its opening without difficulties.

The researchers were able to make adjustments to the mouthpiece's design quickly through the use of the university's 3D printers.

The team tested the claw-like device by attaching it to a small remote-operated rover. They used it to collect sand from a beach at first and then proceeded to use the device to collect sediments that resembled the density and humidity of those found on Mars. The mechanical mouthpiece was able to gather sediments efficiently on both occasions.

The researchers hope that their new claw-like device could be added to rovers that will be deployed to other parts of space in the future.

The findings of the UC San Diego study are featured in the Journal of Visualized Experiments.

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