60-Second Science

Robot Clam Achieves Feat with Foot

M.I.T. researchers have invented a robotic clam--which means they've really developed a smart anchor for small vessels. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

M.I.T. scientists have designed a new robot. You’ll probably never see it though—it’s meant to be hidden. Because it’s a robot clam. Engineers wanted to design a lightweight anchor that could be easily set and then picked up. That’s not possible with conventional anchors. A more talented anchor would be great for, say, small submarines that move around constantly to test ocean temperatures and currents.

Razor clams presented the ideal biological model. They can burrow a centimeter per second more than two feet down into the soil, where they can anchor themselves tightly to the ocean floor. Scientists set up a glass box with water and beads and stuck a living razor clam inside. They filmed what happened next. The animal’s foot wiggled into the beads. The rest of the clam followed by moving quickly up and down and rapidly opening and closing its shell. By carefully analyzing the film, the scientists discovered something surprising. The clam’s movements turn the sand around the creature into more of a fluid—basically quicksand. By copying this system, M.I.T. researchers created a tiny RoboClam. It’s the size of a cigarette lighter. If they add artificial intelligence, we can find out if the device is happy as a clam.

—Cynthia Graber 

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