'Flipperbot' Crawls Like a Turtle to Save Them

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The team use the photos and videos from Jekyll Island hatchlings to build Flipperbot in the lab. The resulting device propels itself over a bed of poppy seeds, which have similar physical characteristics as sand without the problem of moisture, according to Paul Umbanhowar, a physicist and mechanical engineer at Northwestern University.

Umbanhowar said understanding beach surfaces and how turtles move is important because many beaches in the United States are often subject to beach nourishment programs, where sand is dredged and dumped to prevent erosion.

"If you are restoring a beach, it might be the wrong kind of sand or deposited in a way that is unnatural," Umbanhoward said. "In order for this turtle to advance, it has to generate these kind of thrust forces and it may be unable to get their flippers into it. We could say something about that given our models."

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Conservationist Serge Dedina is intrigued by Flipperbot. He says sometimes advances in understanding how the animals move and live is important to protecting them. Dedina has worked to protect marine turtles in the United States and Mexico from human and natural predators, and says he’s seen the impact of increased hurricane activity on beaches that are important breeding grounds for sea turtles.

"With a Flipperbot, you could send those things out to determine what the impacts have been for erosion," said Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, a binational marine conservation group based in Imperial Beach, Calif. "Small, smart things can make a big difference for marine animals."

The Georgia Tech study appears today in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.