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New robotic sea turtle could protect and guide hatchlings

Jul 20, 2023

University of Notre Dame

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Sea turtles are well-known for their ability to swim across ocean water and traverse easily through rough land terrains such as rocks and sand.

Inspired by this skill, engineers at the University of Notre Dame created a robotic sea turtle possessing their unique gait characteristics.

"The sea turtle's unique body shape, the morphology of their flippers, and their varied gait patterns make them very adaptable," said Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the university, in an official release.

Ozkan-Aydin added: "Mimicking this adaptability is challenging because it requires an intricate understanding of how morphology, flexibility, and gait interact with the environment. Studying how sea turtles adapt their gaits to traverse complex and varied terrains can help us design more versatile robots."

This innovative robot prototype imitates the propulsion of a real sea turtle. It was built and designed based on information derived from zoological research on several sea turtle species' anatomy, gait patterns, and flipper flexibility.

"To maximize adaptability and versatility, we studied the locomotion patterns of different species and incorporated the most effective aspects from each," Ozkan-Aydin said.

The robot can move forward with its front artificial flippers and shift direction using its tiny hind flippers.

Some essential robot parts that enable this life-like locomotive adaptability include an oval-shaped body, four individually radio-controlled flippers, an inbuilt electronic control unit, a multi-sensor device, and a battery.

The team employed the 3D printing technique to produce body structure and flipper connectors using hard polymer. The flippers are molded from silicone to provide both flexibility and stiffness.

The researchers evaluated the locomotive flexibility of this robotic sea turtle prototype on the Notre Dame campus's various surface settings.

The team designed the robot after carefully studying the size and structure of sea turtle hatchlings.

According to the official release, baby sea turtles are very susceptible; barely one in a thousand survive adulthood. This is because hatchlings need to protect themselves from predators, including sea birds, on their way from the nest to the ocean. And in recent years, this pathway has become more dangerous for turtle babies due to the prevalence of debris and waste and the disorienting landscape of beach development.

"Our hope is to use these baby sea turtle robots to safely guide sea turtle hatchlings to the ocean and minimize the risks they face during this critical period," Ozkan-Aydin said.