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ANIMAL ROBOTS: Marine Machines Made in Nature's Image
AquaJelly robots (pictured) swim with their own kind by blinking at them. The jellyfish-inspired machines communicate with each other via eleven infrared LEDs inside their domes.
German engineering company Festo is using the jellies to test whether large-scale engineering problems can be solved by the cooperation of many smaller systems. — Photograph courtesy Festo AG
October 26, 2009--If it looks like a fish and swims like a fish, it could be a robot--such as the University of Bath's Gymnobot (pictured), inspired by an Amazonian knifefish.
Researchers worldwide are developing robots that look and act like aquatic creatures. That's because biomimetic gadgets--bots that take inspiration from nature--are often more efficient than their clunkier counterparts.
"In a fishlike fish, the whole of the animal is muscle--its propeller," said Gymnobot developer William Megill of the University of Bath, U.K. "That's not particularly conducive to putting in circuit boards."
To allow more room for cameras and other electronics, Megill's team took cues from the knifefish, which keeps its body rigid to sense electric currents in the water. In the same way, Gymnobot uses its lower, bladelike "fin" to propel itself through the water while the body remains rigid.
Megill and colleagues hope the bot can be used to study marine life near the shore, where a propeller would kick up too much sediment or get tangled in weeds.
--Rachel Kaufman — Photograph courtesy Nic Delves-Broughton, University of Bath
A child watches a jewel-like robotic fish in the London Aquarium on October 7, 2005.
Five similar fish will soon be patrolling the coast of Spain, searching for pollutants in the water.
The 4.9-foot (1.5-meter) long robots, currently being built by the University of Essex, U.K., will be improvements on the model seen above. Longer battery life and more advanced sensors will allow each fish to spend about eight hours at a time exploring the port of Gijon, then automatically report to a charging station to report its data wirelessly. — Photograph by Adrian Dennis, AFP/Getty Images
These robo-lobsters (pictured) are apparently agile enough to track down underwater mines.
Just like the real things, the small machines have antennae to sense obstacles, eight legs that allow movement in any direction, and claws and a tail that keep the robots stable in turbulent water and other environments.
Inventor Joseph Ayers--who's also the author of several lobster cookbooks--has spent the past three decades developing biomimetic robots like these, which were made for the U.S. Navy at Northeastern University's Marine Science Center. — Photograph courtesy John F. Williams, U.S. Navy
AquaPenguins (pictured) can navigate through a tank without human help and--unlike real penguins--swim in reverse.
Built by Festo, a German engineering company that mostly sells pneumatic equipment to the automotive industry, the AquaPenguin was designed to test new technologies. The robots have inspired Festo's BionicTripod and FinGripper, used to manipulate items--even fragile ones--on an assembly line. — Photograph courtesy Festo AG
The latest evolution in MIT's lifelike fish robots (above) has come a long way since Charlie (see the fifth picture).
The new prototype uses just one motor and has six moving parts inside a flexible body, making the robot better able to copy the motion of a real fish, researchers said. And since the body is made of just one piece of soft polymer, there's no chance of water damaging the delicate parts inside.
There won't be any mistaking these for the real thing yet, though. A real fish can swim up to ten body lengths a second. The robot version clocks just one body length a second. —Photograph courtesy Patrick Gillooly, MIT
Charlie the Robo-Tuna (pictured)--arguably the world's first robo-fish--took its first swim at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994 after three years of development.
Designed to mimic real fish as closely as possible, Charlie was built with 40 ribs, tendons, and a segmented backbone with vertebrae--just a few of the fish's 2,843 parts and 6 motors.
Later iterations of MIT's fish reduced the moving parts necessary to replicate fishlike movement but remained authentically fishy--not always the main concern of robo-fish fabricators.
The University of Bath's Megill, creator of the Gymnobot (see first photo) said: "I'm on the other end of the spectrum, saying, I see how a fish works, and I appreciate that, but what I want is something that works like a propeller." — Photograph courtesy Sam Ogden
The golden Kinshachi robot (seen above in 2005 at an expo in Japan) monitors the safety of bridges and keeps track of fishing conditions.
The bulging-eyed robot, developed by the Ryomei Engineering Company, resembles a Japanese mythological creature with the head of a tiger and the body of a fish. — Photograph by Katsumi Kasahara, AP
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