Researchers have revealed an unlikely inspiration for armour that could one day protect bomb disposal robots – a seahorse tail.
The team found the animal’s tail was exceptionally good at protection – and can be compressed to about half its size before permanent damage occurs.
The now hope to develop a ‘skin’ based on the design, which could be used to protect bomb disposal robots, and even soldiers.
The research discovered a seahorse tail can withstand huge pressure using a series of interconnecting plates (right) and now hope to create armour based on the principle
BUILDING A ROBOT ARM
The next step is to use 3D printing to create artificial bony plates, which would then be equipped with polymers that would act as muscles, the researchers say.
The final goal is to build a robotic arm that would be a unique hybrid between hard and soft robotic devices.
A flexible, yet robust robotic gripper could be used for medical devices, underwater exploration and unmanned bomb detection and detonation.
The protected, flexible arm would be able to grasp a variety of objects of different shapes and sizes.
The tail’s exceptional flexibility is due to its structure, made up of bony, armored plates, which slide past each other, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, found.
Researchers are hoping to use a similar structure to create a flexible robotic arm equipped with muscles made out of polymer, which could be used in medical devices, underwater exploration and unmanned bomb detection and detonation.
‘The study of natural materials can lead to the creation of new and unique materials and structures inspired by nature that are stronger, tougher, lighter and more flexible,’ said McKittrick, a professor of materials science at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego who led the study.
They studied the armor of many other animals, including armadillo, alligators and the scales of various fish before realising how flexible the seahorse tail was.
‘The tail is the seahorse’s lifeline, because it allows the animal to anchor itself to corals or seaweed and hide from predators,’ said Michael Porter, a Ph.D. student in materials science at the Jacobs School of Engineering.
The team revealed their findings in the March 2013 issue of the journal Acta Biomaterialia.
Brazilian Seahorses (Hippocamus Reidi): Researchers hope the tail could inspire new armour
‘But no one has looked at the seahorse’s tail and bones as a source of armour.’
Most of the seahorse’s predators, including sea turtles, crabs and birds, capture the animals by crushing them.
Engineers wanted to see if the plates in the tail act as an armor.
Researchers took segments from seahorses’ tails and compressed them from different angles.
They found that the tail could be compressed by nearly 50 percent of its original width before permanent damage occurred because the connective tissue between the tail’s bony plates and the tail muscles bore most of the load from the displacement.
BUILDING A SEAHORSE ROBOT ARM
The seahorse’s tail is typically made up of 36 square-like segments, each composed of four L-shaped corner plates that progressively decrease in size along the length of the tail.
Plates are free to glide or pivot. Gliding joints allow the bony plates to glide past one another.
Pivoting joints are similar to a ball-and-socket joint, with three degrees of rotational freedom.
The plates are connected to the vertebrae by thick collagen layers of connective tissue.
The joints between plates and vertebrae are extremely flexible with nearly six degrees of freedom.
How s seahorse’s tail works
Even when the tail was compressed by as much as 60 percent, the seahorse’s spinal column was protected from permanent damage.
McKittrick and Meyers’ research group uses a unique technique that applies a series of chemicals to materials to strip them of either their protein components or their mineral components.
That allows them to better study materials’ structures and properties.
After treating the bony plates in the seahorse’s tail with the chemicals, they discovered that the percentage of minerals in the plates was relatively low—40 percent, compared to 65 percent in cow bone.
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