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Inspired by Sharks: A Biomimetic Skeleton for the Flapping, Propulsive Tail of an Aquatic Robot

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The vertebral column is the primary stiffening element of the body of fish. This serially jointed axial support system offers mechanical control of body bending through kinematic constraint and viscoelastic behavior. Because of the functional importance of the vertebral column in the body undulations that power swimming, we targeted the vertebral column of cartilaginous fishes—sharks, skates, and rays—for biomimetic replication. We examined the anatomy and mechanical properties of shark vertebral columns. Based on the vertebral anatomy, we built two classes of biomimetic vertebral column (BVC): (1) one in which the shape of the vertebrae varied and all else was held constant and (2) one in which the axial length of the invertebral joint varied and all else was held constant. Viscoelastic properties of the BVCs were compared to those of sharks at physiological bending frequencies. The BVCs with variable joint lengths were then used to build a propulsive tail, consisting of the BVC, a vertical septum, and a rigid caudal fin. The tail, in turn, was used as the propeller in a surface-swimming robot that was itself modeled after a biological system. As the BVC becomes stiffer, swimming speed of the robot increases, all else being equal. In addition, stiffer BVCs give the robot a longer stride length, the distance traveled in one cycle of the flapping tail.
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Keywords: biomimetics; propulsion; robot; vertebral column

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2011-07-01

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  • The Marine Technology Society Journal is the flagship publication of the Marine Technology Society. It publishes the highest caliber, peer-reviewed papers on subjects of interest to the society: marine technology, ocean science, marine policy and education. The Journal is dedicated to publishing timely special issues on emerging ocean community concerns while also showcasing general interest and student-authored works.
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