How a professor is using sea lions to build the next generation of underwater vehicles

March 28, 2023

two people outside of sea lion enclosure

An engineering professor, in partnership with the Smithsonian National Zoo, is studying the mechanism sea lions use to move underwater to engineer more effective underwater motorized technology.

Megan Leftwich, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is conducting research about the mechanisms sea lions use to move underwater in an effort to engineer more flexible and maneuverable underwater vehicles. She said her team of researchers and collaborators at Drexel and West Chester Universities study videotapes of sea lions swimming at the National Zoo to measure the flexibility of a sea lion's body and water distrubances - factors the researchers hope to apply to the physical model of underwater drones and vehicles.

Leftwich said the maneuverability, speed and agility of sea lions, who can generate relatively higher levels of thrust in their body than other marine animals can make with their tails, makes them the perfect animal to study and replicate in underwater engineering. Sea lions clap their front flippers against their body to propel themselves forward and glide through the water, reaching speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

Leftwich said the team is working to learn how sea lions move efficiently while not significantly disturbing the water around them, a feature that researchers hope to incorporate into underwater vehicles used to study sensitive areas of the ocean, like coral reefs that can break under force. She said a lower wake from the vehicles will let scientists more easily study underwater caves and coral reefs and collect materials without disturbing marine life.

“The way I think of it is that we are looking at how nature solves all of these problems and adding it to our engineering tool bag,” Leftwich said in an interview.

Read the full article on The GW Hatchet.