Flipperbot Scuttles Like a Real Baby Sea Turtle: How to Save a Species (Video)

First Posted: Apr 24, 2013 08:27 AM EDT

When a sea turtle hatches from its egg, it has an arduous journey ahead of it; it has to dig itself out of the sand and then scuttle across the beach toward the relative safety of water, all while avoiding predators. Sea turtles are relatively slow on land, though their scuttling motion can handle even the uneven surfaces of the beach. Even with the ability to handle different terrain, though, it seems unlikely that researchers would design a robot that would mimic a baby sea turtle's awkward movements. However, that's exactly what they did.

Researchers designed the robot, which they've dubbed "Flipperbot", so that it can scuttle across the sand just like a real baby sea turtle. They hope that by examining Flipperbot's movements, they can actually learn a bit more about baby sea turtles and, in consequence, have a better understanding about how to protect the different species of turtles.

Sea turtles are facing huge risks worldwide. Beach development and introduced predators have cut down the number of suitable beaches for egg laying while at the same time threatening the hatchlings that do survive to be born. In addition, warming beach temperatures and lower humidity have also affected the viability of turtle eggs.

Flipperbot was actually built by a team of physicists and engineers at Georgia Tech and Northwestern University. During another study, they noticed that baby loggerhead sea turtles don't all have the ability to successfully make it across the beach. This, in part, is what inspired them to create Flipperbot.

"There are those who move well and those who move poorly," said Daniel Goldman, a professor of physics at Georgia Tech, in an interview with Discovery News. "The difference is fairly small. Small changes in how sand leads to large effects. This is important because these animals are under severe predation on the beach; everything wants to eat them when they pop out of the nest."

The robot itself can propel itself over a bed of poppy seeds, which have similar physical characteristics to sand without the problem of moisture. By using the robot in the lab, though, the researchers can potentially test different types of sand and see how Flipperbot will fare. This is especially useful when it comes to beach restoration, when sand is often brought in from another location. By testing different materials, researchers can see what type of sand would be best to place on a beach where sea turtles may hatch.

Flipperbot may not be the most graceful of robots, but it could certainly help preserve different species of endangered turtles.

The study was published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

Want to see Flipperbot in action? Check out the video below, originally appearing here.

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