Run, elephant, run!

Elephants can weigh several tons and move at 15 miles per hour (25 kph). But do they really run and can they help us to design and build better walking robots? A UK researcher thinks so and wants to prove it by recording their movements with six infrared motion analysis cameras, each taking 240 pictures per second. But read more...

You know that elephants can weigh several tons and move at 15 miles per hour (25 kph). But do they really run? And can they help us to design and build better walking robots? John Hutchinson, who works for the Royal Veterinary College in the UK, thinks so and wants to prove it. He has equipped elephants in UK zoos with sensors and is recording their movements with six infrared motion analysis cameras, each taking 240 pictures per second. But don't think he just wants to improve animal welfare. He also trying to help us -- who have legs and feet similar to elephants -- to early identify arthritis. But read more...

So how did he plan his experiments? Here is an answer picked from a news release issued by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The research team has been working with elephants at UK wildlife and safari parks and will shortly travel to Africa and Thailand to study wild animals. Fifteen temporary markers are placed on the elephants’ joints and the animals then move past a motion capture camera, recording at 240 frames per second, at varying speeds. Back in the lab the researchers can then use the footage to reconstruct the rotations of the elephants' joints on a computer, creating a 3D stick model of the animal.

Below is a photo of elephant "Wanalee" moving at 14 mph (22 kph, or 6.2 m/s) (Photo: Richard Lair; credit and copyright: Are Fast-Moving Elephants Really Running?, John Hutchinson, The Royal Veterinary College).

Elephant 'running' at 14 mph

But what will this research be useful for? To show that elephants run? Not only. Here are some comments from John Hutchinson, who works at The Royal Veterinary College in the UK.

This is not a trivial question as Dr Hutchinson explained: "A better understanding of elephant biomechanics offers the possibility for real animal welfare improvements. By developing ways to spot slight changes in gait and joint movements in captive elephants we can catch the early onset of osteomyelitis and arthritis. If these conditions are not treated early they can result in an elephant being put down."

And he goes further, explaining some similarities between elephants and humans.

Humans have the same structure of a straight leg with a long thigh and short foot. Studies of animal locomotion are also key to the design of effective walking robots. By understanding how evolution achieved the joint structure and limb coordination of an animal as large as an elephant we will be better able to construct our own man-made walking robots.

For more information, you can read the July 2006 issue of BBSRC Business (PDF format, 28 pages) or watch this picture and video gallery.

So, will we see better walking robots because a researcher looked at elephants? We'll discover it in a few years.

Sources: BBSRC news release, August 18, 2006; and various websites

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