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MIT dives into robo-fish pool

Scientists at MIT have created low-cost robot fish that can swim just like the real thing. The fish could be used for underwater surveillance of pollution and pipelines.


On the heels of a scientific report last month saying 63 percent of world fish stocks require rebuilding, scientists at MIT have unveiled a new robot fish that's cheap to make and ripe for mass production.

Actually, MIT engineers Kamal Youcef-Toumi and Pablo Valdivia Y Alvarado aren't aiming to replenish fisheries. They want their robot swimmers to be used for underwater monitoring of pipelines, sunken ships, and pollution. Since the fish are less than a foot long, they can maneuver into spaces that are too tight for most underwater autonomous vehicles (UAVs).

The fish--while not as pretty as these toxin-sniffing robot carp patrolling Spanish waters--are notable for their novel design. They have fewer than 10 parts, making them low-cost, and are housed in a continuous flexible polymer casing that prevents water damage.

Lacking different segments, the fish can swim more naturally, according to MIT (watch the video after the jump). A single motor in the middle initiates a wave that moves along the body and propels it forward. Real fish move in a similar fashion by contracting muscles on either side of their bodies.

Youcef-Toumi noted that the polymers allow for stiffness to be specified in different sections, adding that another application would be robotic prosthetic limbs.

The early versions of the fish, about 5 inches long, swam like bass and trout, with movement concentrated in the tail. A later 8-inch version swims more like a tuna, whose movement is focused in the tail and the section where the tail meets the body.

The current prototypes are much slower than real fish. They require 2.5 to 5 watts of power, now from an external source. Internal batteries are planned.

The robot fry follow other creatures in MIT's mechatronic bestiary--Charlie the Robotuna, created in 1994 and consisting of nearly 3,000 parts, and Finnegan the robot turtle, a study in biomimetic propulsion from 2004.

MIT also plans to create prototypes of robotic salamanders and manta rays.

But what I really want to see is Chef Robot, a robot sushi chef, go to town on these fish!