Mar 22, 2018 | By Tess

MIT’s prolific Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently revealed a new technology which could make it easier to capture video and photographic recordings of unknown or mysterious underwater creatures.

No, it’s not some amazing diving suit or a camouflaged submarine (though those would be cool): it’s a soft robotic fish called SoFi that is designed to swim among the fish and spy on them.

(Image: MIT CSAIL)

The robotic fish is made from a combination of parts. Its back, or tail portion, is constructed from silicone rubber and flexible plastic, which enables it to move in an almost natural way through the water. Its head, however, which holds all the robot’s electronic components, was 3D printed.

To prevent water from leaking into the fish’s “brain” and damaging the electronics, the CSAIL team filled the robot’s 3D printed head with a bit of baby oil, which offered a simple and resourceful solution to protecting the machinery from water. (The baby oil doesn’t compress when it encounters higher pressures underwater.)

Appropriately, the 3D printed robot fish is also equipped with a fisheye lens, which enables it to capture high-resolution photos and video footage of its underwater companions.

The swimming tech is innovative in a number of ways. Not only is the SoFi a robot disguised as a fish, but its unique setup also allows for it to go diving without having to be tethered to a boat or without any “bulky and expensive” propeller equipment.

Using a simple but sophisticated system consisting of a camera, a motor, and a lithium polymer battery (the kind used in smartphones), the SoFi robot is capable of swimming at depths of over 50 feet for about 40 minutes at a time.

The swimming is achieved by having the motor pump water into two “balloon-like chambers” located in the fish’s tail. Functioning similarly to pistons in an engine, one chamber expands with water and causes the tail to bend in one direction; when it switches, the opposite occurs. The result is a simulated swimming motion.

With this hydraulic mechanism, a custom buoyancy control unit (that compresses and decompresses air), and an adjustable weight feature, the SoFi is able to dive up or down, swim in a straight line, and turn. In another resourceful move, the CSAIL researchers used a (waterproofed) Super Nintendo controller and a custom acoustic communications system to control the robot’s movements and speed.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” said CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the SoFi study. “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.”

The partially 3D printed underwater robot was developed as a way to research underwater environments and wildlife without being too invasive. To this end, the SoFi’s motors have been made as quiet as possible and the communications system is based on ultrasonic emissions and uses wavelengths of 30 to 36 kilohertz.

Cecilia Laschi, a professor of biorobotics at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, explained: “A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef and because it can be better accepted by the marine species.”

Presently, the CSAIL team is working on improving the 3D printed soft robot’s design and functions to enable it to swim faster. Eventually, Katzschmann says, the team hopes to add a camera feature that would allow the robot to “automatically follow real fish.” CSAIL also plans to deploy a number of SoFi robots for research purposes.

“We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” said CSAIL director Daniela Rus, who worked on the SoFi project. “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.”

The 3D printed SoFi robot was recent tested in Fiji’s Rainbow Reef. You can see video of the expedition below:



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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