Seahorse Tails Inspire Robotic Armor

//

The seahorse -- whimsical-looking creature of fairytale and myth - is now providing bio-engineers with the inspiration to build a rugged robot arm that could one day rescue sailors who have fallen overboard, grasp medical tools or load equipment in outer space.

That’s because it turns out that the seahorse’s tail is super-strong. Its overlapping armored plates can be squeezed more than 50 percent without damaging the nerves underneath, according to new research at the University of California, San Diego. That helps the animal hold onto undersea grasses and rocks to avoid underwater currents.

PHOTOS: Small World Under the Sea

“We’ve been looking at tails and bones,” said Joanna McKittrick, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. “We’re interested in the organization from the nano-scale. We looked at bone and antlers, rams’ horns, armadillos, fish scales, porcupine scales and toucan beaks. We’re looking at how an animal can protect itself. It has to be lightweight, but tough and fracture resistant. We're curious as to how Mother Nature can do it. And then maybe we can do it in the lab.”

McKittrick has studied other kinds of natural materials in the past, such as abalone shells, to find possible micro-structures that could be used for armored plates or vests. Armored critters -- whether pangolin, alligator or seahorse - seem to have one thing in common, she said.

“One of the things we discovered that if you are slow moving, you need thick armor,” McKittrick said. “The seahorse has one set of fins and it moves very slowly.”