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Study Aims to Understand the Underlying Mechanism of Underwater Walking

Nearly 360 million years ago, creatures migrated from water onto dry land, turning out to be the first terrestrial animals.

Dr Henry Astley. (Image credit: University of Akron)

One of the major evolutionary events in the history of life could be the colonization of land by animals; however, the understanding of the physics of this event is restricted. Dr Henry Astley aims to find answers.

Finding out the forces that control underwater walking will offer a solution to the evolutionary questions, offer insights into the animals of today, and arm engineers with useful information that will result in more efficient and well-designed underwater walking robots. These robots could offer infinite applications, helping in anything from underwater drilling to emergency rescue to exploration.

Long before animals stepped foot onto dry land, they were walking underwater. Astley, an assistant professor in the departments of biology and polymer science at The University of Akron, wants a more detailed understanding of this behavioral precursor, so he is starting a new project to explore this scientific mystery.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has provided Astley with a $297,267 two-year EAGER (Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research) grant to help in his journey through these unexplored waters.

His project, “First Steps: Dynamics and Control of Underwater Walking,” qualified for EAGER funding, which is used by the NSF to support exploratory work in its early phases on untested, but prospectively reformative, research concepts or strategies.

The focus of Astley’s lab is on the biomechanics of animal movement across unstructured landscape. Being a faculty member of the distinguished Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center (BRIC), he explores animals for solving human problems.

No one’s ever really delved into the physics of underwater walking.

Dr Henry Astley, Faculty Member, Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center

Underwater walking can be described as a fusion of terrestrial walking and swimming. This inimitable combination of movements poses challenges for scientists.

Inside water, animals swim in an environment in which their body weight is supported via buoyancy and by propulsion through hydrodynamic interactions—by pushing off surrounding water.

On land, animals confront greater restrictions from gravity. They have to be supported by limbs or slide across the land’s surface though propulsion by interactions with substrate—pushing or pulling along land.

According to Astley, since underwater walking is a fusion of both locomotive methods, a “weird mix of physics,” it is uncertain how the primary forces experienced by these animals interact.

To gain insights into the baseline physical properties of underwater walking, Astley and his group, headed by Integrated Bioscience doctoral student Kaelyn Gamel, will be exploring the underwater walking of Spanish ribbed newts. In order to gather data about the forces in effect, the newts will walk across an underwater force sensor system positioned at the bottom of a standard fish tank.

Robots are moving out of assembly lines and into the natural world,” states Astley. His work is a significant initial step toward optimizing this change.

Biomimicry professor studies underwater walking

Underwater walking. (Video credit: University of Akron)


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