An intersection of math and biology: Clams and snails inspire robotic diggers and crawlers (w/ Video)

Nov 11, 2013

Engineering has always taken cues from biology. Natural organisms and systems have done well at evolving to perform tasks and achieve objectives within the limits set by nature and physics.

That is one of the reasons Anette Hosoi, professor of at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studies snails. Snails can move in any direction—horizontally, vertically, and upside down—on various surfaces, be it sand, shells, tree barks or slick walls and smooth glass. One of the reasons for this is the sticky substance on their underbellies, which acts as a powerful lubricant and reduces friction during movement.

By studying and adapting the biological properties of the snail to , Hosoi's group has been able to create a "RoboSnail," which can climb walls and stick to overhead surfaces much like its living counterpart. Such a device can have potential uses in invasive surgery and oil well drilling, among other applications.

Another organism of interest to Hosoi is the , which has an amazing ability to dig and wedge itself; it can burrow up to 30 inches in the sand. Hosoi's "RoboClam" has been developed with the intention of understanding the organism's behavior and mechanics as well as to explore the possibility of automated digging devices that use less energy than current technology and equipment.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Watch a brief video of Hosoi talking about her research at the 2013 SIAM Annual Meeting

The researchers found that while digging, the clam's up-and-down movement accompanied by opening and closing of its shell turns sand into the consistency of liquid quicksand. This in turn allows the clam to move quickly through the sand. Similar to the human version, the RoboClam vibrates, changing the solid seabed into fluid, allowing a worm-like foot to push down.

Clam-inspired robotic diggers could find use as automatic tethers and lightweight low-cost anchoring devices for small robotic submarines and even large ships and oil platforms. Devices that burrow into the seabed could also potentially be used as detonators for underwater mines.

Hosoi is not alone in looking to to instruct robotics development. Engineers around the world are turning to natural organisms like insects, fish and turtles to inspire the design of robots capable of performing specific tasks that automated devices have traditionally been unable to achieve. Mimicking can also aid in improving the efficiency of many applications that are energetically expensive, since biological entities perform the same tasks with much higher efficiency.

It is important to not only copy the animals, but also to understand the biology of their mechanisms in order to take away the key features that allow them to do what they do. These types of biomechanical studies have led to a mutually beneficial partnership between mathematicians and biologists. Biologists can inform mathematical scientists as a goldmine of data is emerging as biology becomes more and more quantified. Mathematicians, in turn, can employ the tools of engineering and computation to analyze this data and offer new insights into the way animals move.

Explore further: Scientists study 'fishy' behavior to solve an animal locomotion mystery (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Robotic clam digs in mudflats

Nov 22, 2009

To design a lightweight anchor that can dig itself in to hold small underwater submersibles, Anette (Peko) Hosoi of MIT borrowed techniques from one of nature's best diggers -- the razor clam.

Study uncovers secret to speedy burrowing by razor clams

May 25, 2012

(Phys.org) -- If you look at a razor burrowing clam sitting in a bucket, you’d never guess that it could burrow itself down into the soil, much less do it with any speed. Razor clams look like fat straws, ...

New underwater robot swims and senses like a fish

Jul 18, 2013

In recent years, robotic underwater vehicles have become more common in a variety of industrial and civil sectors. They are used extensively by the scientific community to study the ocean. For example, underwater ...

Recommended for you

Nanoscience makes your wine better

14 hours ago

One sip of a perfectly poured glass of wine leads to an explosion of flavours in your mouth. Researchers at Aarhus University, Denmark, have now developed a nanosensor that can mimic what happens in your ...

Fly ash builds green cement mixture

15 hours ago

An eco-friendly cement, known as Alkali Pozzolan Cement (APC), containing a mixture of fly ash, dry lime powder and sodium sulphate under specific scaffolding conditions has been developed by Curtin University ...

User comments : 0