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Study Of Diabolical Ironclad Beetle's Exoskeleton Could Help Improve Aircraft


Nature is full of lessons for curious engineers. Consider the diabolical ironclad beetle or Phloeodes diabolicus. It's jet-black, about an inch long. And it can't fly, so it's incredibly tough instead.

DAVID KISAILUS: We heard from folklore that you could run them over with a car or step on them, and they don't die. And, of course, we had to try that. So we took a old Toyota Camry and put the diabolical on the ground and ran it over, and it survived.


That's David Kisailus of the University of California, Irvine.

KISAILUS: Of course, as scientists, we have to have our controls, so we tried another beetle in the nearby region. It didn't fare so well.

SHAPIRO: Kisailus says what sets the diabolical beetle apart is the unusual architecture of its outer shell.

KISAILUS: The two halves of its exoskeleton, which are called elytra, unlike a flying beetle, which can open and close its elytra, this structure is fused together. It's no longer able to fly.

MOSLEY: And that junction between the two halves is where Kisailus found some impressive engineering.

KISAILUS: So what we found was that interface has a jigsaw-puzzle-like geometry that provides exceptional interlocking strength.

MOSLEY: The work appears today in the journal Nature.

SHAPIRO: As for who cares about tough beetles, well, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research helped fund the work. Aura Gimm is a program officer there. She says this engineering trick could help build tougher drones or helmets by providing a new way to join different types of materials.

AURA GIMM: When you bring two metals together, it's usually the joints that fails. So if we have design principles that allows you to be able to make that much stronger and tougher, that's going to have a wider potential of applications for materials beyond Air Force material.

MOSLEY: Evan Ulrich is an engineering manager at Aerospace Corporation, a space R&D center. He says this toughness could also be applied to exploring far-away places beyond our planet.

EVAN ULRICH: You know, when I imagine operating robotics on other worlds, they have to be very robust not only in their computer architecture and physical strength but also in their tolerance to damage because there are likely to be things that we don't anticipate that impact the vehicle.

MOSLEY: He says nature's lessons are many.

ULRICH: There's all these different colors that have been painted of solutions to problems that we haven't even thought of yet.

SHAPIRO: For instance, Ulrich once built a drone inspired by the twirling helicopter-like motion of a maple seed. As this beetle study shows, nature has lots more to teach us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOSHIO MATSUURA'S "L.M. II [FULL LENGTH]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.