Scientists have created a realistic robotic fish that mimics the shape and movement of real aquatic life. In a study published Wednesday in Science Robotics, the authors describe the latest version of aquatic biomimetics—a robot design that mimics the shape and movements of real animals. SoFi, (short for soft robotic fish), is described by its creators as a robot fish that blends in, unnoticed, among the underwater crowds.
“We were excited to see that our fish could swim side by side with real fish, and they didn’t swim away,” shares Daniela Rus, lead researcher at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.
According to reports, it is the first robotic fish to contend with currents and pressures of an ocean setting for an extended period of time. In the study, the authors describe how SoFi can nimbly navigate a coral reef in three dimensions, swimming up, down, left, right and forward. A diver using an acoustic communication modem controls SoFi remotely, and, reports Rus, could be an extraordinary tool for studying marine biology.
According to the study, building a robot that can function underwater comes with unique challenges. Besides issues of communications (radio frequencies used to communicate with robots on land don’t work in the water), Rus said buoyancy was among the biggest challenges for her team.
“If you’re a diver then you know you let the air out of your dive vest when you go down and put it in when you go up. But sometimes as you go up the air you have expands so you need to let more out. It’s really quite tricky,” she says.
Rus and her team resolved this issue by creating a buoyancy control unit, with urethane foam chambers that can change their density by compressing or decompressing air. Ken Smith, a marine ecologist at the Monterey Bay institute who didn’t work on the study, believes that this new robotic fish has a lot of potential. He predicts that future improved versions will be very valuable to marine scientists studying shallow-water ecosystems.