The Robotic Dinosaurs That Could Change Paleontology Forever

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Drexel University

Could Tyrannosaurus rex run down its prey or did the eight-ton “tyrant lizard” shuffle its feet on the ground like an elephant? How did large dinosaurs lay eggs? Could they kneel down or did they simply drop off their offspring from 2 1/2 stories in the air and hope they survived?

Short of the wildly advanced genetic engineering imagined in Jurassic Park, robots might be the best tools that we have for answering these kinds of questions. Hence the partnership between paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara and mechanical engineer James Tangorra, both of Drexel University, who are using 3D printing to create the most advanced dinosaur models the world has ever known.

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“We’re hitting the point where we’re going to be able to study extinct creatures in the same way a biologist can study a raccoon or tuna,” says Lacovara. “It’s going to go beyond informed guesswork to testable hypotheses.”

Before, paleontologists had two options when it came to studying the biomechanics of extinct animals. One was to manipulate the actual bones — not an easy task when you specialize in massive sauropods like Paralititan stromeri, which stretched as long as 100 feet.

“I can’t pick up a 1,100-pound femur and see how it articulates with a 400-pound tibia and 150-pound fibula; not without getting a hernia at least,” jokes Lacovara.

The other option was to manually create an accurate scale model of a dinosaur skeleton, a prohibitively long and complicated process. Huge molds — which damaged fossils and were a pain to store — had to be created. Once you had cast a model from that mold, you then had to hand it over to a sculptor who would try his or her best to faithfully recreate it.

Now all Lacovara has to do is scan each bone and the 3D printer does the rest, creating accurate replicas in a matter of hours. The idea is to create 1/10th scale models of massive dinosaurs, as well as other extinct animals such as prehistoric turtles and crocodiles, and use advanced computer models to test the stresses and strains inherent in different movements and positions.

Turning the model skeletons into walking robots shouldn’t be too difficult — scientists have created biomimetic robots based on everything from dogs to seagulls. Lacovara’s partner on the project, Dr. Tangorra, previously built a robotic fish in order to gain insight into the movements, biomechanics and fluid mechanics of living fish.

The team hopes to have a fully operational dinosaur robot within a year or two. In the future, Lacovara speculates that they’ll be able to model other systems such as respiratory and vascular systems, which would finally let scientists tackle some of paleontology’s trickiest questions including one that has stumped people for years: Can sauropods lift their heads into the air?

Sauropods were the giants of their time — think the towering Brachiosaurus from Jurassic Park or the dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus, eventually found to be no different from the earlier discovered Apatosaurus.

The widely depicted scene of sauropods raising their heads to munch on high-hanging vegetation presents a serious problem. If they had a circulatory system similar to ours, the three-story journey their tiny heads took would cause them to pass out because blood wouldn’t be able to traverse their long necks quickly enough.

There are three possible solutions to this predicament:

  1. They had gigantic hearts capable of creating unbelievably high blood pressure that barely fit into their bodies.
  2. They weren’t capable of lifting their heads at all.
  3. They, for some reason or another, just didn’t need that much blood pumped to their brains.

This is the kind of conundrum that can only be solved through projects like the one started at Drexel six months ago. Test after test will determine the most efficient biomechanical model, which, more often than not, is the most accurate one.

It might not be the same as actually sticking a giant stethoscope against the chest of a genetically engineered dinosaur, but it’s leaps and bounds beyond the methods available to early paleontologists, who could only stare up at the massive skeletons before them and make the best guesses they could based on their knowledge of anatomy and their imaginations.

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