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Lowly Yabby could claw its way to Mars

Yabby keeps an eye on the ball while scientists keep an eye on Yabby.
Yabby keeps an eye on the ball while scientists keep an eye on Yabby.  

By Richard Stenger
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- Legions of robotic arthropods could someday scurry across the surface of Mars, thanks to the inspiration of an unassuming crayfish known as the Yabby.

Scientists are relying on the hardy freshwater creature in the design of miniature rovers, which could reach forbidden parts of the red planet that human explorers could not.

Test Yabbies have turned up in laboratories worldwide, studied by collaborating zoologists and engineers involved in the rapidly growing field of biomimetics, which borrows from the best in natural designs to build smart robots.

The Yabby, for example, possesses an extraordinary hind appendage.

"The tail of the Yabby acts like a hinged lever, changing form to act as sail for steering or a powerful paddle for swimming," said University of Melbourne zoologist David Macmillan.

The arrangement of nerves and muscles offers an extraordinary model of how to overcome the challenges of controlling multi-jointed levers.

"Such levers could be useful in the design of multi-jointed legs for mobility over difficult terrain, or in activities requiring precision lifting and leverage," Macmillan said.

Yabby, dabby, can do

As the Yabby goes about his business in the lab, perhaps watching a miniature ball sail over his head, technicians watch Yabby, recording the response of nerve cell sensors in his tail.

They have found that the claw-clad critter possesses a complex feedback system associated with its movements, something that engineers would love to understand and imitate.

Biomimetic engineers acknowledge that they have much to learn. Some of the Yabby's internal wiring seems to work in ways completely opposite of what they expect.

But such mechanical mimicry has already produced a number of accomplished cyber-critters, like robots that undulate their entire bodies to propel themselves in water or move about with multi-jointed legs.

And the Yabby could lead the way for scientists looking to design a mobile planetary probe.

"NASA wants to expand its use of robots to carry out a multitude of tasks in space, but the cost of lifting the current generation of heavy robots into space is prohibitive," Macmillan said.

"By studying invertebrates like the Yabby and its marine relatives, it may be possible to reverse engineer their neurological systems and build miniature, lightweight and autonomous robots capable of performing the range of complex tasks needed to explore Mars and beyond."




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