Sometimes robots are huge and impressive. Other times they're small and cute and just want to play around in the sand, which is exactly what FlipperBot was designed to do. It is the result of a study begun in 2010 by professor Daniel Goldman and then-grad student Nicole Mazouchova into the hows and whys of flipper evolution.
The team began their research by examining baby leatherback sea turtles as they hatched and made their way to the sea. But the data they gathered from those studies wasn't quite enough to satisfy their curiosity. What they did discover was that baby sea turtles can maintain their speed of locomotion regardless of the type of surface they are traversing. This garnered the attention of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) program, the U.S. Army Research Office, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, to name a few.
And so, with aid from Northwestern University's Paul Umbanhowar, FlipperBot was born. The robot's design is highly reminiscent of a sea turtle, right down to a very specific type of wrist joint. And it's this wrist, it turns out, that makes all the difference. According to Professor Goldman:
"On hard ground, their wrists locked in place, and they pivoted about a fixed arm. On soft sand, they put their flippers into the sand and the wrist would bend as they moved forward."
The research being done with FlipperBot is ongoing, but with the data the robot has already collected, Goldman and his team believe they are getting closer to understanding how the flipper evolved as a means of walking on land to begin with. It could also help future generations of robots and their designers in the quest for better limbs and joints.