Yet another great bioinspired mechanism, suitable for robots and robotic spacecraft: a gripper based on the sea urchin’s mouth.
As the team from UCSD comment, this organ is “an intricate network of musculature and calcareous teeth that can scrape, cut, chew food and bore holes into rocky substrates.”  Apparently, this natural system has inspired biopsy and dental instruments, this team is adapting it to be used as a robot sampler.
Sea urchins are famously effective gnawers, capable of chewing away shellfish, coral, and pretty much anything. So their rather terrifying mouth is certainly an interesting subject of study for grabbers, grippers, gougers, and diggers.
As the video shows, the mechanism captures the essence of the natural system, and looks very versatile, compact, and, I would say, elegant. Cool!
This design was intended for collecting soil and sediment samples, such as for a proposed “sample return” expedition to Mars.
The bioinspired design exercise also shed light on the evolution of the natural biological system. For instance, the engineering studies confirmed that the “keeled” tooth seen in later specimens does confer significant strength to the tooth—an adaptive advantage that may well have evolved as a means to expand feeding opportunities.
“The mass increase is small compared with the decrease in stress that the keel provides.”
Biology inspires engineering, engineering elucidates biological history. Even cooler!
Under the heading, “You never know what you might learn”:
Apparently, this mouthpiece of the sea urchin is known as “Aristotle’s Lantern”, based on remarks from the Greek philosopher in Historia Animalium, written some 2000 years ago.
Educating myself even further, I learned that Aristotle was probably referring to a common design for lanterns, which use thin pieces of horn as translucent panels around a candle. (The sea urchin mouth does, indeed, look like such a lantern might look.)
Completing a trifecta of “learning something new”, the English word “lantern” is probably derived from the contraction of the words “lamp horn”!
- Michael B. Frank, Steven E. Naleway, Taylor S. Wirth, Jae-Young Jung, Charlene L. Cheung, Faviola B. Loera, Sandra Medina, Kirk N. Sato, Jennifer R. A. Taylor, and Joanna McKittrick, A Protocol for Bioinspired Design: A Ground Sampler Based on Sea Urchin Jaws. (110):e53554, 2016/04/24/ 2016. http://www.jove.com/video/53554