'Flipperbot' Crawls Like a Turtle to Save Them

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Researchers have created a robot that mimics how baby sea turtles scuttle across the sand to reach the ocean just after hatching. Dubbed "Flipperbot," the scientists hope that the insights they gain from understanding the physics of sea turtle locomotion on land could lead to better ways to protect beaches and the endangered marine mammals that call it home.

They also hope it may provide clues to the movement of other critters that used their flippers to draw themselves from ocean to land -- like the mudskipper, sea lion or an ancient lobe-finned animal called the Tiktaalik.

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"Flipperbot" was built by a team of physicists and engineers at Georgia Tech and Northwestern University. The idea came after looking at the results of an earlier study of how baby loggerhead sea turtles walk across the sands of Jekyll Island, Ga., just after hatching, said Daniel Goldman, a professor of physics at Georgia Tech.

"In that study we noticed they were doing a bend at their wrists," Goldman said. "We made some speculation, but didn’t have any solid evidence. So we built a turtle inspired robot that functions as a physical model." (See a video of the device.)

Goldman said that not all baby sea turtles are good at scampering across the beach. Some were able to propel themselves pretty well, others dug themselves into a hole.

"There are those who move well and those who move poorly," Goldman said. "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."