The engineering building at Northern Illinois University was a hive of activity and innovation on…
DeKalb, Ill. — They started with a 3-D prototype of a saber-toothed cat’s forelimb. One day, it could be the entire cat.
Inspired by NIU biological sciences professor Virginia Naples, who’d some day like a prototype of the extinct animal to follow her around in class, a team of engineering students created Paleobotics Smilodon.
“I thought she was joking,” graduate student Bernard Boston said of Naples’ initial suggestion he work on the project.
“She actually wanted to have a real, fully built-up saber-toothed cat,” he said. “I went out and recruited: ‘Any of you guys want to do something cool?’ We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
“This took over two years, learning the muscles, the skeleton, learning the fundamentals behind it. When that happened, it was ‘How are we going to apply it?'”
The team presented its work during Spring 2018 Senior Design Day in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at NIU. The day featured 39 team projects competing in all areas of engineering, some taking on requests from local business or industry, others–like Paleobotics Smilodon–taking on unique concepts.
Team members–Boston of Chicago, Rene Yoc of Cicero, Rahul Magnadia of Des Plaines and Miguel Proa of McHenry, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering–learned the skeletal, muscular and biomechanics of the Smilodon, the best-known prehistoric saber-toothed cat.
They 3-D printed bones and used sensors, pneumatic pumps and nylon tubing to simulate actual muscle movement of the forelimb. The goal was to the make the movement as close as possible to the actual “in vivo” or live movement the animal would make if it were still living.
“What we did had never been done,” said Boston, who expects to earn his master’s degree this summer and continue the project as he works toward a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences at NIU.
Their work wasn’t just for show. A prototype replicating actual muscle movement of the extinct animal could provide insight into the functional capabilities of the saber-toothed cat and possibly the creation of animal prosthetics. The more true-to-life the prosthetic, the better chance the animal will accept it, Boston said.
The effort also could be used as a teaching tool. And it could lead to improved human prosthetics, team members said.
“Instead of spending thousands and thousands of dollars for a prosthetic, you could make something very helpful for a couple hundred dollars,” said Magnadia, who likely will work with Boston on the project this coming year, along with Yoc.
“This will give insight into helping those in need of prosthetic limbs and recovering limbs robotically and helping recover their natural movement of the missing limb,” the team’s report found.
It goes beyond that.
Boston imagines interactive displays at museums.
“Kids now have so much technology in their hands and movies like ‘Jurassic Park,’ Every kid loves dinosaurs. How cool would it be if a kid walked into a museum and you have a dinosaur turn around and look at the kid?” he said.
“That’s the beautiful part of working with Dr. Naples, making muscles and making bones move realistically. When I get done with my Ph.D., the technology and value of what I’ve learned here at NIU, I can take this anywhere.”
Media Contact: Jami Kunzer
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 courses of study while serving a diverse and international student body.