UCSD Engineers Use Seahorse Tails to Improve Robotics


The discovery allows engineers to better understand the unique object-grabbing ability of a seahorse’s tail and use it in various medical or military applications, such as flexible robotics and lightweight armor. 

It was first published earlier this year in the February 2013 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Acta Biomateriali.

The team dissected several frozen seahorses, donated by the Birch Aquarium, to better understand the structure and interaction of bones that allow the tail to bend and twist. A variety of chemical treatments, scanning electron microscopy, micro-computed tomography and other mechanical tests were used to visualize and test the bones before and after crushing them.

“When we crushed tail sections of the seahorse, we were surprised to find that the tails were highly deformable, compressing nearly 50 percent of their original width before permanent damage was observed,” UCSD Ph.D. student Michael Porter said. 

Porter received his bachelor’s degree in engineering science and mechanics from Virginia Tech in 2007 and master’s degree in biological engineering from the University of Hawaii in 2010.

The researchers observed that the tail is made up of four overlapping plates surrounding a central vertebra. These plates have sliding mechanisms that slide in and out of each other, allowing the tail to bend and twist.

The team of researchers were led by Porter and included UCSD post-doctoral student Ekaterina Novitskaya, visiting post-doctoral student Ana Bertha Castro-Cesena and UCSD professors of mechanical and aerospace engineering Joanna McKittrick and Marc Meyers.

McKittrick was interested in studying seahorses because of their unique characteristics. Research on the project began in August 2011, when Porter joined the team to start his Ph.D. research on biomimetics.

The team plans to apply their findings into developing a biomimetic robot gripping device that mimics the musculoskeletal structure and function of a seahorse tail. This robot would contain both hard and soft materials, differentiating itself from existing robots and allowing for more flexibility.

“We are currently developing CAD models of seahorse-inspired robotics,” Porter said.

The team then plans to use 3-D printing to replicate the hard components and polymers to act as artificial muscles.