It’s sad but true: only around one in 1,000 baby sea turtles survive the arduous trek from their beach nests to the open ocean. This journey has only grown more fraught thanks to continued seaside development and all manner of human trash obstacles for the tiny creatures. To both better understand their movements, as well as potentially help them out, a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame recently designed and built their own turtle robot.
Their results? Well, take a look for yourself and try not to say “Awww.”
“The sea turtle’s unique body shape, the morphology of their flippers and their varied gait patterns makes them very adaptable,” explained Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and roboticist at the University of Notre Dame who led the latest biomimicry project.
Along with an electrical engineering doctoral student Nnamdi Chikere and undergraduate John Simon McElroy, Ozkan-Aydin broke down sea turtles’ evolutionary design into a few key parts: an oval-shaped frame, four individually operated remote-controlled flippers, a multisensor device, battery, as well as an onboard control unit. The trio relied on silicone molds to ensure the flippers’ necessary flexibility, and utilized 3D printed rigid polymers for both its frame and flipper connectors.
To maximize its overall efficacy, the team’s new turtle-bot isn’t inspired by a single species. Instead, Ozkan-Aydin and her colleagues synthesized the gait patterns, morphology, and flipper anatomy of multiple turtle species to take “the most effective aspects from each,” she said on August 7.
Unlike other animal-inspired robots, however, Ozkan-Aydin’s turtle tech is initially intended solely to help their biological mirrors. “Our hope is to use these baby sea turtle robots to safely guide sea turtle hatchlings to the ocean and minimize the risks they face during this critical period,” she explains.
Judging from recent reports, they could use all the help they can get. According to the Wild Animal Health Fund, 6 out of 7 sea turtle species are currently considered threatened or endangered. The aptly named nonprofit sea turtle organization, See Turtles, lists a number of current threats facing the species, including getting entangled in fishing gear, illegal trade and consumption of eggs and meat, marine pollution, and global warming.