The key to awesome future robots could be seahorse tails

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3D models of a seahorse tail tested for possible engineering uses(Credit: Oregon State University)

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The key to better, tougher and more coordinated robots as well as improved surgical procedures, among other advances, could derive their inspiration from an unlikely source – the odd, square tail of the all-around strange seahorse.

While most animal tails are cylindrical in cross-section, the seahorse has a unique, squared tail that not only provides the fish with a tough armor, but also gives it a strong grasp to hold on to things like plants or coral and "fish" for food that floats by its mouth. A paper in the most recent issue of the journal Science lays out some of the virtues of the appendage, which provides potential insight into engineering and robotics applications given its combination of strength and flexibility.

The team has been working on the research for a few years now, and we first took notice of the effort back in 2013.

"We found that this square architecture provides adequate dexterity and a tough resistance to predators, but also that it tends to snap naturally back into place once it’s been twisted and deformed," said co-author Ross Hatton, an assistant engineering professor at Oregon State University. "This could be very useful for robotics applications that need to be strong, but also energy-efficient and able to bend and twist in tight spaces."

Possible future uses could include laparoscopic surgery, which involves a flexible but strong robotic device that can move around inside organs and bones, search-and-rescue systems or industrial uses.

The researchers didn't have to torture any seahorses to test the strength and flexibility of their tails. Instead, they used 3D printers to create both cylindrical and square-structured prototypes that could then be run through comparative tests. This led to the finding that square structures like the plates of a seahorse's tail slide past each other when crushing pressure is applied, protecting the vertebral column from being broken, then slide back into place.

The square shape of models based on the seahorse tail also provided more contact points when grasping something, creating a stronger hold on the object.

"It's kind of a nice, happy medium between hard and soft robots," explains Clemson University professor Michael Porter, who led the study.

Check out the video below with Porter to see more on how seahorse-inspired designs could soon make their way into the world of robotics.

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