Headlines:Notre Dame researchers build robotic sea turtle to study locomotion and help conservation

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August 8, 2023.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have designed and built a robotic sea turtle that mimics the propulsion and gait of real sea turtles. The robot can move through different environments, such as sand, water and rocks, and could help scientists understand how sea turtles adapt their locomotion to various terrains. The robot could also be used to guide sea turtle hatchlings to the ocean and protect them from predators and human threats.

Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), partly wet by first wave, heading back toward the sea from Turtle Beach, north shore Oahu, Hawaii.
Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), partly wet by first wave, heading back toward the sea from Turtle Beach, north shore Oahu, Hawaii.

The robotic sea turtle was created by Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Notre Dame and a roboticist, along with electrical engineering doctoral student Nnamdi Chikere and undergraduate John Simon McElroy, a Naughton Fellow from University College Dublin. The team used data from zoological studies on the morphology, gait patterns and flipper flexibility of multiple sea turtle species to design the robot.

“The sea turtle’s unique body shape, the morphology of their flippers and their varied gait patterns makes them very adaptable,” Ozkan-Aydin said. “Mimicking this adaptability is challenging because it requires an intricate understanding of how morphology, flexibility and gait interact with the environment. Studying how sea turtles adapt their gaits to traverse complex and varied terrains can help us design more versatile robots.”

The robot consists of an oval-shaped body, four independently radio-controlled flippers, an electronic onboard control unit, a multi-sensor device and a battery. The body frame and flipper connectors are 3D printed using a rigid polymer. The flippers are molded from silicone to provide both flexibility and stiffness.

The robot’s front flippers move it forward while its smaller hind flippers allow it to change direction. The team is testing the robot in different environments on Notre Dame’s campus, such as sand pits, pools and rocky surfaces. They are also developing algorithms to control the robot’s gait and speed according to the terrain.

One of the potential applications of the robotic sea turtle is to help conserve real sea turtles, which are endangered by habitat loss, climate change, poaching and pollution. Sea turtle hatchlings are particularly vulnerable — only one in a thousand survive to adulthood. Hatchlings must run a gauntlet of predator sea birds on their journey from nest to ocean, and that journey has become more perilous by a disorienting landscape of beach development and debris.

“Our hope is to use these baby sea turtle robots to safely guide sea turtle hatchlings to the ocean and minimize the risks they face during this critical period,” Ozkan-Aydin said.

The team plans to collaborate with zoologists and conservationists to test the robot in natural settings and evaluate its impact on sea turtle behavior and survival. They also hope to inspire future generations of engineers and scientists by showcasing their robot at educational events and outreach programs.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award and the Naughton Fellowship Program.

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