A robot fish that could alter your image of robots forever

March 17, 2014

A team of engineers in Massachusetts has built a robot that looks, feels and swims like a fish.

It’s agile enough to make a full C-turn, like a fish in escape mode. It’s swift enough to execute the escape maneuver almost as fast as a real fish, in tenths of a second.

And unlike most robots, if it slams into you, it won’t break your leg. It’s soft.

Soft robots “are inherently safe,” said Daniela Rus, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The field holds the potential to create robots that interact with living things without crushing them, changing in shape and size to fit different environments, says the new journal, Soft Robotics (SoRo), that published the research on the robotic fish.

“This new technology delivers vital applications for a variety of purposes, including surgery, assistive healthcare devices, search and rescue in emergency situations, space instrument repair, mine detection, and more.”

In fact, if your idea of a robot is a variation of 3-CPO, a hinged machine with rigid segments, soft robotics will change the way you think about robots forever.

It will “push the envelope of what machines can do,” said Rus.

The geniuses who built the soft fish are Andrew Marchese, a doctoral candidate in engineering at MIT,  Cagdas Onal, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Rus.

The robot is autonomous, meaning it has on board “all the components the robot needs to run, like the power, actuation, and control systems,” Marchese said in an email. It’s “fully self-contained.”

The softness and pliability are key. The body is largely silicone rubber. Embedded inside are fluid-filled channels. Valves and nozzles control the flow of gas through the channels and propel and guide the robot, producing the swimming.

The speed and agility of the creature surprised its creators, said Marchese.

“To test the robot’s performance,” he said, “we had it perform simulated escape responses. From rest, the robot energetically bends its soft body to as high as 100 degrees in several hundred milliseconds allowing it to accelerate off in a different direction. Natural fish do a similar maneuver to escape predators in roughly 100 milliseconds.”

In performance, said Marchese, “it’s getting close to the real thing.”

So far, it’s a fish with no name. “We usually refer to it as the ‘soft fish,’” he said. “Not very exciting.”

A more detailed but accessible account of the fish is appears in MIT News.

Courtesy of the authors and Soft Robotics
Courtesy of the authors and Soft Robotics

 

 

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Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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