Sep 28, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have used 3D printing to develop “Envirobot," a modular, eel-like swimming robot that can collect environmental data and deliver it to scientists in real time.

Envirobot, with its Frankenstein-like body made up of plastic components, looks a bit like a robotic monster from a post-apocalyptic world. Think an aquatic version of The Matrix or Terminator, perhaps. However, equipped as it is with important environmental sensing equipment, it’s actually doing its bit to keep the world exactly as it is—and even make it better.

Developed by researchers at Switzerland’s EPFL, Envirobot is able to collect important environmental information as it swims through water, wirelessly sending the results to scientists in real time.

Excitingly, it’s also 3D printed, with a 3D printable epoxy resin chosen to ensure the swimming bot is waterproof. “Generally, 3D printed stuff is porous,” said Alessandro Crespi, a robotics engineer at the EPFL and one of four researchers on the project. “[But] this one is guaranteed to be waterproof.”

With the Envirobot project, which has been underway for a couple of years now and which is funded as part of the Swiss Nano-Tera program, the Lausanne-based researchers are aiming “to design and construct an aquatic water sampling and water analysis robot, which can either work in a surveying mode according to a predefined path, or in auto-navigation mode, according to chemosensory and biological systems input.”

To help them achieve that goal, the researchers decided on one main design feature: modularity. This, they say, will help them easily modify Envirobot for particular tasks, removing certain sensory equipment when it is not needed and adding other bits when necessary.

But when these modules are first 3D printed, they’re completely empty. It sounds counterintuitive, but this means that Crespi and his three colleagues—Behzad Bayat, André Guignard, and Auke Ijspeert—can invite other project partners to develop their own sensing equipment for the robot.

And this sensing equipment, the researchers have discovered, can be just about anything.

Recent tests on Lake Geneva involved collecting water samples and measuring the temperature and electrical conductivity of the water. However, another research partner is developing a pH sensor for Envirobot, while another is using a biosensor consisting of a tiny crustacean that is sensitive to changes in the water’s composition.

Belonging to the genus Daphnia, these surprisingly functional crustaceans work as microscopic pollution trackers, because they are incredibly sensitive to contaminants.

“This sensor based on the Daphnia is actually able to measure pollutants without knowing what it’s looking for,” Crespi explained. “That’s important when scientists don’t know whether a body of water is polluted.”

Another biosensor being developed uses genetically engineered bacteria that will respond to specific chemicals.

The 3D printed Envirobot clearly has a lot going for it. However, there are still a few problems with the swimming robot that need to be rectified. For one, it still struggles with waterproofing, while the team has also struggled to keep total control of the robo-eel. If Envirobot swims too far, the navigation and locomotion systems lose calibration, which can leave the robot stranded far out in the water.

But Crespi believes that Envirobot will eventually be capable of going out on missions on its own.

“If we want to send the robot in the middle of the lake for a mission, of course we don’t want to go after it with a boat,” he said. “That would eliminate all the purpose of the robot. We can definitely have autonomous navigation.”

Someday, the Envirobot could even be adapted to swim underwater—a feature that would enable it to collect a whole new range of environmental data, such as a 3D pollution map of, say, an entire lake.

It could also be programmed to "sniff out" pollution across large bodies of water, which would help environmentalists block off sources of pollution at the source before serious damage is done.

“We want to have the robot to be able to actually look for a very specific pollution source by following the concentration gradient,” Crespi said.

You can learn more about Envirobot and find links to scientific papers concerning the 3D printed creation here.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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