Robotic Dinosaurs on the Way for Next-Gen Paleontology at Drexel
Todd Grimm posted on February 20, 2012 |

Scanning a dinosaur boneResearchers at Drexel University are bringing the latest technological advancements in 3-D printing to the study of ancient life. Using scale models of real fossils, for the first time they will be able to test hypotheses about how dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals moved and lived in their environments.

“Technology in paleontology hasn't changed in about 150 years,” said Drexel paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We use shovels and pickaxes and burlap and plaster. It hasn't changed -- until right now.”

Lacovara has begun creating 3D scans of giant dinosaur bones and other fossils in his lab. The 3D scan puts a virtual image in a digital workspace that researchers can manipulate and analyze. To bring these scans to life, Lacovara is also teaming up with mechanical engineer Dr. James Tangorra, an assistant professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering, to use 3D printing technology to create and test scale models of fossil bones.

“It’s kind of like Star Trek technology, where you can press a button and the object pops out,” Lacovara said. A six-inch model of a dinosaur bone can be printed in a few hours using current technology.

“We don’t know a lot about the way dinosaurs move,” Lacovara said. “How did they stand? How did they ambulate? Did they run or trot? How did they reproduce? It’s all a bit mysterious, especially when it comes to the largest dinosaurs.”

Paleontologists’ current methods of understanding such mechanics rely heavily on guesswork and common sense about what types of movements seem possible. With new technology, researchers can begin testing their predictions for the first time.

Lacovara and Tangorra will work together to create robotic models of giant sauropod dinosaurs, attaching artificial muscles and tendons to perform comprehensive tests of how the animal’s body could have handled physical stresses of the environment.

Lacovara predicts that they will have a working robotic dinosaur limb constructed by the end of 2012. A complete robotic dinosaur replica will take one to two years to create.

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