Sep 1, 2017 | By David

If you were asked to name some of the top applications for 3D printing, ‘solving mysteries’ wouldn’t be an answer you’d immediately go for. But that’s exactly how a group of researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, recently used the technology. They were investigating a problem which dates back to the 1950s, and which originates many millions of years before. The prehistoric marine reptile known as the Pleiosaur had four flippers, but how they worked has never been clear. A definitive answer has now been found at last, with the help of a 3D printed robot.

The Pleiosaur was one of the bigger underwater creatures back in prehistoric times, resembling a dinosaur but not actually belonging to the same species. The aquatic reptile achieved near-global distribution in the world’s oceans during the Mesozoic Era, which covers the period between 220 and 66 million years ago. Its remarkably long neck was its main distinguishing feature, giving it a strong resemblance to the mythical Scottish lake-dweller, the Loch Ness Monster. Unlike Nessie, however, the Pleiosaur did at one time exist, but how exactly it used to swim has bamboozled scientists and engineers alike.

Modern-day four-flippered animals like the turtle or the sea lion have two noticeably different sets of flippers, with the front ones generally being used for thrust, while the back pair is used to steer the creature. The mystery of the Pleiosaur is that it could swim in spite of the fact that all four of its flippers were identical, not to mention its impractically huge neck. A team of researchers at the University of Southampton, working with partners at the University of Bristol, decided to solve the mystery once and for all, using a simple water tank and a robot fitted with 3D printed flippers.

The team initially studied a range of Pleiosaur fossil specimens and photographs of skeletal configurations, as well as X-rays of still-existing animals that use flippers. This gave them a general idea of what the shape of the Pleiosaur’s flippers would have been and the range of motions that it would have been capable of. They then 3D printed a recreation of the large, wing-like flippers using a 3D printer and attatched them to a robot. Next, these miniature robotic Plesiosaurs were placed into a tank of water, with dye added to allow the team to see water movement. Repeated adjustments of the flippers were made until the team came up with a configuration that resulted in optimal propulsion.

What they found was that swirling, vortex-like movements in the water, created by the front flipper, allowed for a major increase in thrust and efficiency by the back flipper (increasing thrust by up to 60 per cent and efficiency up to 40 per cent). This strongly suggested that plesiosaurs would have used all four flippers simultaneously to propel themselves through the water. The Pleiosaur’s propulsion was based on making use of its own wake, which is a system shared by only one other creature- the dragonfly.

“The results were amazing and indicate why plesiosaurs were such a successful species, retaining four flippers for more than 100 million years’’, said Luke Muscutt, a PhD student in Engineering and the Environment. ‘’If this wasn’t the case, it’s unlikely the four-flipper system would have been maintained for so long... Understanding how an animal might have moved gives us a better understanding of the animal as a whole – for instance, how far it can travel, what animals it can predate on, and what it might have fallen prey to.’’

It’s exciting to see cutting-edge technology like 3D printing being applied to resolve age-old problems like this, and it might even be the case that some of the developments we make in the future will in turn take inspiration from something that died out 65 million years ago. According to Muscutt, our ''observations of tandem flipper systems such as the plesiosaur’s might also eventually have a real-world application – as a propulsion system for undersea vehicles, for instance, that could help make them more manoeuvrable, efficient and quieter."



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Tom wrote at 9/4/2017 8:13:27 AM:

Why is that guy wearing makeup? The early 80's are over.

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