The Plesiosaur Robot
First Swim
with Sir David Attenborough

On Planes and Plesiosaurs

So, how does an aerospace engineer end up building a robotic plesiosaur?
Well, I was interested in science from a young age. In fact, my favourite books were all about science, maths or engineeering. As I learnt more about science and engineering, I became increasingly amazed at the wonders of the natural world and particularly the incredibly efficient engineering solutions found in nature.

My desire to understand how things worked led to my undergraduate and Masters degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Sheffield, which led me to a PhD in Biomechanics at Southampton University, looking at the Hydrodynamics of Plesiosaurs.

You might think planes and plesiosaurs have little in common but once you realise that wings and flippers can function in very similar ways and they both move through a fluid (air/water), it doesn't take long to see that they have some important characteristics in common.

My research began with a detailed analysis of plesiosaur fossils and involved a combination of aerospace engineering, robotics, and palaeontology to discover the secrets of these prehistoric beasts. As we were primarily interested in how the plesiosaur used its flippers, we built a flipper system mounted on a gantry, without a head or tail.

Dr L E Muscutt profile photograph

Photo credit:Jo Mieszkowski

Without teamwork and collaboration, very little science would ever get done. My thanks go to Bharathram Ganapathisubramani, Gareth Dyke, Gabriel Weymouth, Darren Naish and Colin Palmer for leadership and support during my PhD.

Flips maiden voyage with Sir David Attenborough

Photo credit:Jo Mieszkowski

The team's findings settled a long-standing debate about how plesiosaurs used their flippers. We found that plesiosaurs used a tandem flipper propulsion system, meaning the four flippers work together to push them through water. This system is unique because all other animals with flippers, like penguins and turtles, only use the front two for propulsion, and the rear flippers or feet for steering. This resulted in a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. You can see more information on this in the RESEARCH section of this website.

The flipper system was a simplified prototype of the fully-formed swimming robot 'FLIP' - the world’s first scientifically-accurate plesiosaur robot - which recently appeared in the BBC programme 'Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster'. In fact, Sir David Attenborough was at the controls for Flip's first swim.

After my doctorate, I began working at the Structural Dynamics group in Imperial’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, supporting researchers working on aeroplane engines and the structural effects of vibration.

Keen to continue bringing plesiosaurs to life in my spare time, Project Flip really took off when I met James Hogg, who had recently opened the Yorkshire Natural History Museum in Sheffield, and who agreed to support the work.

Flip is currently helping me with further study of plesiosaur locomotion in the hydrodynamics lab at Imperial College London.

In addition to my continuing research, I have a passion for spreading the joy of science to the next generation. I have lots of plans for how Flip can help with this and I'd be delighted if you would like to support us through GoFundMe or sign up to my newsletter.

Introducing Flip at TetZooCon 2023

Imperial College Social Media

Watch the incredible BBC documentary and see Flip's maiden voyage with Sir David at the controls...

Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster

...available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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Articles relating to the BBC programme Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster.

A range of articles, podcasts and TV programmes in connection with my PhD research.

link to Tom Walker Film

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Published Research

link to the Journal of Ship Production and Design
link to Journal of Fluid Dynamics article
link to the American Physical Society article
link to the Royal Society article
link to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
link to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers


The following institutions have all helped fund or have facilitated my research. Please note that inclusion of organisational logos on this site does not imply an ongoing relationship or any kind of approval or endorsement of my work by that organisation.

link to Southampton University

Completed PhD at Southampton

link to European Research Council

Research part-funded by ERC

link to imperial college london

Continuing research at ICL

link to engineering and physical sciences research council

Research part-funded by EPSRC

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