Although it may seem that we know a great deal about dinosaurs, a lot of the knowledge is actually based on assumptions rather than hard facts. Often, scientists have to resort to guesswork. Some hypotheses can only be tested by manipulating a skeleton model, but that's quite a challenge if the bones you want to study belonged to an enormous animal. Also, size is not the only issue. Dinosaur fossils tend to be fragile, unique and valuable. That's why the researchers at Drexel University, who want to build precise robotic models of dinosaurs, decided to use 3D printing technology.

"Technology in paleontology hasn't changed in about 150 years," said Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, a paleontologist at Drexel University. "We use shovels and pickaxes and burlap and plaster. It hasn't changed - until right now." Together with Dr. James Tangorra, Lacovara hopes to harness the potential of additive manufacturing to revolutionize the way paleontologists work. They've started by creating 3D models of the fossils in their laboratory.

Same-size replicas will be made for museums, eliminating the need for traditional casting. Smaller replicas will be prepared with educational purposes in mind. Most importantly, however, scaled-down models will be used to construct robots that will help verify some scientific theories about how dinosaurs walked and behaved.

Three-dimensional printing can be used to create smaller models that maintain the exact proportions as the originals. Moreover, the 3D models of bones can be adjusted to account for the deformations that may have been caused by the compression and fossilization processes.

The researchers plan to create robotic models of giant sauropod dinosaurs, complete with artificial muscles and tendons. The robots are going to be subjected to tests designed to show how the huge bodies reacted to physical stress and other environmental stimuli. Lacovara expects that a working dinosaur limb will have been constructed by the end of the year, while creating the whole robotic model is going to take another two years.