Apr 3, 2018 | By David

Many exciting things have been achieved with 3D printing and soft robotics over the last few years, as the technologies combined allow for the production of a huge variety of different structural designs for all kinds of useful functions. The most recent breakthrough took place underwater at the Rainbow Reef in Fiji, where an innovative soft robotic fish was able to capture some unique footage of the marine depths. The robot was made by engineers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), partially using 3D printing technology.

Known as SoFi, the robot was designed to swim alongside sharks and other underwater creatures, at depths of more than 50 feet for up to 40 minutes at a time, with a special camera fitted to its body that can take high-resolution photos and videos.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” says CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the new journal article published today in Science Robotics. “We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”

Katzschmann worked on the project and wrote the paper with CSAIL director Daniela Rus, graduate student Joseph DelPreto and former postdoc Robert MacCurdy, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In the past, the most common way to capture this kind of close-up underwater footage was by using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) tethered to a boat, or equipped with a large propeller. This soft robot was much simpler and more lightweight, with just a motor, a camera and a smartphone battery. This made it extremely agile as well as much less disruptive to the environment.

SoFi’s head was 3D printed from plastic, and houses all the electronics that power the robotic fish’s movement. This process involves a motor and two balloon-like chambers. As one of the balloon-like chambers expands, it bends to one side while actuators push water into the other chamber, which bends in the other direction. Functioning much like pistons in an engine, these two chambers work to propel the fish forward, creating a rocking, side-to-side motion. This motion is similar to the swimming of real fish, giving it the ability to blend in to its surroundings even more effectively.

The hydraulic system enables different swimming speeds, moving at about a half a body length per second, and SoFi can swim in a straight line as well as turning or diving up or down. Soft robots like SoFi are preferable in a number of ways to rigid robots, and in cases like this where they need to move around in a busy, complex environment, they’re ideal as researchers don’t have to worry quite as much about having to avoid collisions.

“Collision avoidance often leads to inefficient motion, since the robot has to settle for a collision-free trajectory,” says Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. “In contrast, a soft robot is not just more likely to survive a collision, but could use it as information to inform a more efficient motion plan next time around... We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts. It has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life.”

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

 

 

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