Palaeontologist Professor Kenneth Lacovara from Drexel University in Philadelphia has teamed up with mechanical engineer James Tangorra to model dinosaur movement and behaviour by creating replicas of their bones. Modelling the movement of extinct species is extremely difficult, even more so in the case of larger animals, 'We don't know a lot about the way dinosaurs move. How did they stand? How did they ambulate? Did they run or trot? How did they reproduce? It's all a bit mysterious,' explains Lacovara.
Until now, scientists have had to use a certain amount of guesswork and common sense when reconstructing the way extinct species move, often extrapolating from modern species and obtaining results which are speculative at best. Lacovara works with some of the largest dinosaur species, the sauropods, which weighed up to 80 tonnes. Manipulating the bones of these giants is nearly impossible, so Lacovara needed a way to build scaled-down replicas to test theories about sauropod movement.
This is where 3D printing comes in. The fossil bones are first scanned to create 3D images, which require software manipulation to create accurate 3D templates. Over millions of years, the bones are compressed and distorted by the process of fossilisation so the computer software is used to restore them to their original shapes and proportions. Lacovara and his team can then scale down the bones and print them on a 3D printer. The smaller 3D replicas are much easier to manipulate than the original fossils and can be used to build articulated models to study dinosaur movement.
The team is now working on robotic model dinosaurs with artificial muscles and tendons and hopes to have built a working robotic limb by the end of this year. Even more exciting is Lacovara's prediction that they'll be able to build a complete robotic dinosaur within two years. A 3D-printed robotic dinosaur? If there's a cooler, more fun use of 3D printing, we haven't found it yet.
by Anthony Morgan