Engineering professor designs robotic arm to mimic sea lions

One GW professor has aimed a new project at emulating one of the sea lion’s most unique features, according to a release published on Monday.

Megan Leftwich, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, designed a robotic arm that mimics the movement of a sea lion’s front flipper, the release said. Sea lions propel themselves forward using their front flippers, as opposed to their tails, which eliminates any trace of the animals’ movement. The undetectable movement could be key to observing aquatic life without disruption, the release said.

Leftwich visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to videotape the sea lions’ flipper movement, playing it back frame-by-frame. She used the observations to create the robotic arm to model the animal’s front flipper.

Leftwich designed the robotic arm with a 3D printer and outfitted it with a silicone cover. She perfected the arm’s mechanism by “using flow diagnostic techniques to chart the fluid’s movement and the forces it takes for a sea lion to move its foreflipper,” the release said.

Leftwich’s findings were published in the “Journal of Aero Aqua Bio-mechanisms” last month.

The next steps of the study include traveling to the Science, Learning and Education With The Help of Sea Lions educational aquarium in California, where the robotic arm will be tested among real sea lions to see how similarly the real and robotic flippers operate.

“Observational studies like these are the first step in a research program that will lead to deep understanding of this unique swimming paradigm,” Leftwich said in the release. “Now that we’ve done the preliminary studies at the National Zoo, we need to test the theories we’ve developed on foreflippers in a lab involving scientifically trained sea lions.”

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