A robot "soft" brings a 450 million year old organism back to life – GEO

Science continues to surprise us. Are you familiar with soft robotics? This area of ​​robotics, which seems to have attracted increasing interest since the beginning of the 21st century, involves so-called “soft” robots. These are devices made of elastic, deformable or even flexible structures or materials, including plastic, rubber, silicone and various polymers.

This area of ​​robotics offers many interests in the eyes of experts. For example, they give them a better insight into the lives of ancient creatures in the past.

Scientists have managed to breathe new life into a 450-million-year-old organism, according to the conclusions of their study published Monday, November 6, in the journal National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). After relying on fossil discoveries, they built a robot replica using soft materials and flexible electronics.

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Paleobionics, a new field of research

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This software robot called “Rhombot” was developed from an ancient marine organism called pleurocystitid. This robot – and similar robots – could be used in the future to better understand the biomechanical factors that enabled the evolution of organisms in the distant past, the researchers assure.

The first fossils of the first modern humans appeared on Earth about 300,000 years ago. Although at first glance this seems a very long time ago, this is not the case, since on the scale of our planet’s existence this represents only 0.007% of its history, the researchers emphasize.

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Although the study of the modern animal kingdom still sheds light on the evolution of species and continues to inspire engineers, this is only a small fraction of the creatures that have lived throughout history. So experts who want to expand our understanding of animal design, movement and evolution are looking back (even further).

In this way, scientists from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), supported by paleontologists from the Polish Institute of Paleobiology and the Spanish Institute of Geology and Mining, recently introduced paleobionics: a new field of research.

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Study ancient life forms

In the conclusions of the study published in the journal PNAS, we learn that the field aims to use “softbotics” (in other words, a robotic approach using soft materials and flexible electronics) to study ancient life forms in depth. And with the aim of better understanding their biomechanics.

“Our goal is [de] “Bring biological systems back to life in the sense that we can mimic them to understand how they work,” replied Philip LeDuc, a professor of mechanical engineering, whose comments are quoted on the Technology Networks website.

For his part, Professor Carmel Majidi (the lead author of this study) pointed out that Softbotics is “another approach to making science” accessible to the public. “A variety of fundamental principles of biology and nature can only be fully popularized if we pay attention to the chronology of animal evolution,” he continued.

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But what exactly are pleurocystitis? They once belonged to the class of echinoderms. The affected organisms include the sea urchins and starfish that now live in our seas and oceans. Pleurocystitids would be one of the first echinoderms to be able to move using their muscular rod.

Because of their role in the evolution of echinoderms – a phylum of marine animals whose first fossil traces date back to the Cambrian – pleurocystitides are of great interest to paleontologists.

In this new study, researchers used fossil evidence to enable the development of a robot. Specifically, they used a combination of polymers and 3D printed elements.

The results, which they highlighted in the conclusions of their paper, show that ancient pleurocystitids were quite capable of moving easily on the seafloor. They probably used their muscle staff to make large, sweeping movements that allowed them to propel themselves forward.

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Eventually, the researchers explained that these organisms were able to increase their speed… by increasing the length of their limb! And all without consuming more energy.

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