It’s almost ironic how much effort has gone into investigating what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere, yet vast swaths of our oceans remain completely unexplored. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 95 percent of the Earth’s watery realm has yet to be seen by human eyes. Given that 70 percent of the world is covered in water, it’s like we have a completely submerged exoplanet on our doorstep.
A team of researchers at the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab revealed on Wednesday that they have created a robotic fish that can tackle the daunting task of swimming in the ocean’s uncharted waters. No, it’s not a dolphin with lasers. It’s a mechanical fish named “SoFi.” It’s made out of flexible materials, making it perfect for squirming into undersea caverns. And it looks just like a fish.
The main reason this little fish was developed was to observe different species of fish unobtrusively. This way scientists can gather accurate data of how aquatic animals actually behave in their natural habitat, without worrying about traditional clunky equipment scaring them off.
SoFi could be helping marine biologists probe coral reefs in as little as two years.
Robert Katzschmann, the Ph.D. candidate who developed SoFi tells Inverse that in the near future, an entire school of these robot fish may closely examine what has alluded marine explorers.
“You can start duplicating and make several of these robotic fish to use them almost like a network of sensors and cameras,” Katzschmann says. “The prototype was designed to go as deep as a beginner human diver, so around 60 feet.
“You would need to use different materials to encase some of its [machinery] but that’s an engineering question that is completely feasible to take it much deeper than what we’ve done so far.”
In a paper published on March 21 in the journal Science Robotics, Katzschmann and his colleagues write that the project was inspired by mother nature as well as the wiggly world of soft robotics: They were able to create a mechanical sea creature that’s pretty close to the real thing. The malleable design resembles the bodies of biological fish so well that Katzschmann claimed with a steady stream of funding SoFi could be helping marine biologists probe coral reefs in as little as two years.
Before this project, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) had to be tethered to boats or powered by propellers. This makes using AUVs a costly and a pretty intrusive way of exploring the ocean’s depths. SoFi, on the other hand, harnesses the power of the water in the environment to swim around like an actual fish would.
The secret is all in the tail
A motor powered by a lithium battery pumps water into two balloon-like chambers in the fish’s rear. As one cavity fills with water the tail bends to one side, when the water is pushed into the other chamber its tail flexes in the other direction. This is what creates that signature swiveling motion that SoFi, and most marine life, uses to get around.
This makes it perfect for closely observing oceanic organisms. Traditional AUVs can look like torpedos or underwater silos. Big metal objects like that scare away many fish and limit the amount of data scientists are able to gather from these ecosystems. SoFi could act as a sleeper agent by harmoniously living among schools of fish while collecting invaluable data for marine biologists.
“We can use SoFi as an underwater observatory of marine life,” says Katzschmann. “The biomimicry that’s built into [SoFi’s] propulsion mechanism gives it the potential to mimic a real fish rather easily. With that you can start setting up studies to not only observe but also to interact with fish in their natural environment, not just in an aquarium. This will give scientists the ability to examine a variety of other effects that couldn’t be considered as long as they were living in a tank.”
The fish prototype is controlled with a modified Super Nintendo controller.
Katzschmann and his team have taken one of nature’s already existing design and merged it with modern-day technology in an attempt to give humans more access to what lies under the sea. The idea here is not to try and reinvent the wheel. Instead of developing a new submarine model, taking inspiration from the evolutionary patterns of wildlife can prove to be much more reliable.
“When used reductively – with the goal of finding a solution, not to necessarily create an ecologically sound product – biomimicry can be seen as a supplement to the designer’s existing toolkit,” stated a paper published in the journal Sustainable Development.
Katzschmann took his expertise in soft robotics technology, that he said reminded him of the squishy bodies of fish, and implemented it to nature’s time-tested designs.
In the future the team hopes to further improve SoFi’s swimming ability by tweaking its body and tail structure. They will also be using the onboard camera to follow around real fish to see how they respond to various stimulus and changes in their natural habitat.
So if end up going snorkeling in the next few years, don’t be surprised if you see SoFi lurking in an anemones with a family of Clownfish.