'Flipperbot' Robot Protects Sea Turtles

By Matthew Dougherty , Apr 24, 2013 05:24 PM EDT

A new robot in town known as the Flipperbot may help scientists find a way to save as many baby sea turtles as possible.

Researchers at Northwestern University and Georgia Tech built the 790g robot to see how sea turtles and other animals with flippers move across the sand.

The study came out of research involving watching newborn sea turtles make their way to the ocean, avoiding predators on the beach, on Jekyll Island, Ga.

It turns out that turtles have flexible wrists at the end of each flipper, allowing them to move quicker down the beach than one might suspect. This allows them to navigate uneven terrain with relative ease.

"On hard ground, they seemed to lock their wrists to move forward,” study co-author and associate professor at Georgia Tech Daniel Goldman said.

On sand, Goldman said, the turtles dig their flippers a particular depth into the sand and bend their wrists to move forward. The turtles make sure that the sand does not begin to cover them, slowing their journey down the beach.

The flexible wrists were the inspiration for Flipperbot, which moves exactly like a sea turtle. Goldman is optimistic that the research done on the robot will help us understand how sea turtles and other animals use their flippers to survive.

"I hope we can use models like this to understand [more] about the flipper-like appendages from the earliest animals to walk on land," Goldman said.

The project was partly funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, with the additional aim of discovering new ways for robots to traverse land and water. Flipperbot has no wheels or legs, but crawls with 40cm flippers that have tiny motors driving them.

Georgia Tech researcher Nicole Mazouchova conducted the field study, spending six weeks with the sea turtles. She notes that the animals are endangered not only from natural predators, but from humans as well.

"The natural beach habitat of hatchling sea turtles is endangered by human activity. Robot modelling can provide us with a tool to test environmental characteristics of the beach and implement efforts for conservation," Mazouchova said.

It is estimated that only one in 1,000 sea turtles makes it to adulthood.

The study was published in the Institute of Physics journal Bioinspiration & Biometrics. 

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