June 17 - Scientists are developing a new type of gripping arm for medical and engineering applications, using the the flexible armor of seahorses as a model. A team at the University of California San Diego says the creature's natural armor plating provides a degree of strength and flexibility that does not exist outside nature. Tara Cleary reports.
It is among the most captivating of sea-creatures, but for scientists, the seahorse has also become an engineering inspiration. Researchers led by Joanna McKittrick at the University of California San Diego are trying to replicate the creature's unique tail armor. They believe its natural strength and flexibility could be applied to the development of man-made tools like robotic arms for use in medicine and engineering. SOUNDBITE: JOANNA MCKITTRICK, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN DIEGO MATERIALS SCIENCE PROFESSOR, SAYING (English): "They have a tail that is a prehensile tail, like a monkey's tail. So, their tail inspired us because it's a very nice underwater gripping device and coupled with the armor, we thought this would make a wonderful, robotic-inspired flexible gripping device." The tail shell comprises several plates that slide and pivot against each other, even under enormous pressure. Ph.D. student, Michael Porter says it's this flexibility and strength that protect the animal's spinal column. SOUNDBITE: MICHAEL PORTER, PH.D. STUDENT, SAYING (English): "If you were to squeeze it it's very rigid and hard. They'll slide and protect the column up to about 50 percent of its total width. So you can compress these about 50 percent of its width without damaging its central nervous system." The researchers believe it should be possible to reproduce the characteristics of the seahorse armor in synthetic materials which behave in much the same way. Michael Porter sees great potential in developing it further. SOUNDBITE: MICHAEL PORTER, PH.D. STUDENT, SAYING (English): "It could be used for medical devices. It could be used for bomb disposal, gripping mechanisms, where basically you have the flexibility of a soft robot, but you have the rigidity of the armor protecting the soft interior." The next step is to create artificial bony plates connected to polymers that would act as muscles, the beginning of a process adapting millions of years of evolution for modern scientific solutions.