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Robotic Technology

A different kind of animal

By Lisa Rummler

December 2009 - In the olden days, crews would send a canary in a cage down a new mine shaft to determine whether carbon monoxide or other lethal gases were present. If the bird emerged alive, the shaft was deemed safe for workers.

It's not a direct parallel, but if fish could be trained or otherwise controlled, they could inspect shipwrecks or other submerged structures or help monitor levels of pollutants in bodies of water.

Thanks to work by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., this sort of work has the potential to be done--at no risk to any species.

That's because MIT scientists Kamal Youcef-Toumi and Pablo Valdivia Y Alvarado developed "robofish" whose movements authentically mimic the movement of real fish.

"Given the fish's robustness, it would be ideal as a long-term sensing and exploration unit," Valdivia Y Alvarado said in a press release. "Several of these could be deployed, and even if only a small percentage make it back, there wouldn't be a terrible capital loss due to their low cost."

The robots are less than 1 ft. long and powered by one motor, which requires 2.5 W to 5 W to run. Both tethered prototypes and prototypes with embedded batteries have been built to date. The robots' bodies are continuous and made of soft polymers, facilitating flexibility.

"This makes them more maneuverable and better able to mimic the swimming motion of real fish, which propel themselves by contracting muscles on either side of their bodies, generating a wave that travels from head to tail," according to the press release.

Additionally, the technology used to create the fish has the potential to benefit humans more directly, such as in the development of robotic prosthetic limbs.

"Using polymers, we can specify stiffness in different sections rather than building a robot with discrete sections," said Youcef-Toumi in the press release. "This philosophy can be used for more than just fish."

Old school
The fish Youcef-Toumi and Valdivia Y Alvarado created aren't the only robotic fish hatched in the halls of academia, however.

Fifteen years ago, ocean engineers demonstrated a 4-ft.-long robotic fish. Dubbed Robotuna, the fish had nearly 3,000 parts controlled by six motors. In addition, scientists at the University of Essexin the United Kingdom developed robotic fish "using traditional assembly of rigid components to replicate the motions of fish, [whereas] the MIT team is the only one using controlled vibrations of flexible bodies to mimic biological locomotion," according to the press release.

MIT's new robofish are more durable than earlier iterations because their seamless bodies prevent water from leaking inside of them. Further, several robots dating back to 2005 are still functioning.

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to branch out to other kinds of animals and test prototype robotic salamanders and manta rays, according to the press release.

"The fish were a proof-of-concept application, but we are hoping to apply this idea to other forms of locomotion, so the methodology will be useful for mobile robotics research--land, air and underwater--as well," said Valdivia Y Alvarado. FFJ

Sources

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Cambridge, Mass.
    www.mit.edu

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