The seahorse may be one of the ocean's oddest creatures but it now provides inspirations in the field of robotics, which could pave way for building robots that are flexible, tough and strong.
Although the seahorse is technically a fish, its tail has evolved losing the ability to assist it in swimming. Nonetheless, the structure provides an energy-efficient and strong grasping mechanism that allows the seahorse to cling to coral reefs and seaweeds while waiting for food to pass by.
In a new study published in the journal Science on July 2, researchers described the unusual skeletal structure of the seahorse including its tail characterized by a vertebral column that is surrounded by square bony plates.
The tail's square structure offers flexibility making it possible for the seahorse to bend and twist and the tail can return to its former shape better than those of animals that have cylindrical tails.
The unusual skeletal structure of this marine animal is of special interest to robotics experts because this could help them design bots that are strong and hard and at the same time flexible enough.
Scientists are interested in making "hard" mechanical robots that are safe when used around "soft" humans such as those that can assist in surgery and those that are used in handing out tools to factory workers.
"Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily," said study researcher Ross Hatton, from Oregon State University. "But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That's why we can learn a lot from animals that will inspire the next generations of robotics."
The researchers likewise said that the tail's square architecture could have technological applications that can be very useful in laparoscopic surgery wherein a robotic device could provide flexibility and enhanced control as it navigates around bones and organs as it has the strength needed for accomplishing the surgical task. Such technology could also be very useful in machines that are used in search and rescue missions as well as in industrial applications.
"Understanding the role of mechanics in these prototypes may help engineers to develop future seahorse-inspired technologies that mimic the prehensile and armored functions of the natural appendage for a variety of applications in robotics, defense systems, or biomedicine," the researchers wrote in their study.
Photo: Jon Bragg | Flickr