MIT's robotic fish swims in the ocean, fits in at 'school'

"SoFi" is a soft robotic fish with a fish-eye lens (of course) that can explore where few other robots or humans can, and without spooking the locals.

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2 min read

MIT has developed a robot that blends right in and can go undetected in a school. So long as that school is made up of fish like those you might find swimming around a coral reef. 

SoFi in action in Fiji.


 On Wednesday, a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled a soft robotic fish dubbed "SoFi," including video of the fishy bot swimming in the ocean alongside unsuspecting regular tropical fish (that weren't even drunk). The above footage comes from test dives in Fiji's Rainbow Reef at depths over 50 feet (15.2 meters) that lasted as long as 40 minutes.

"To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time," CSAIL Ph.D. candidate Robert Katzschmann said in a release. He's also lead author of a paper on SoFi published Wednesday in Science Robotics.

Breaking down SoFi's guts.


The mechanical marine spy is equipped with a camera that uses, naturally, a fish-eye lens to capture close-up videos and photos of whatever underwater environments it can swim its way into. It can be piloted with a waterproof remote control that uses ultrasonic signals and is based on an after-market video game controller

MIT has been working on similar designs for a few years now.

"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," explained Cecilia Laschi, who wasn't involved in the project but is a professor of biorobotics at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.

The remote-controlled robot swims by pumping water into chambers that allow its tail to bend and flex, propelling it forward while controllable fins and a buoyancy chamber help it navigate.

Up next, the researchers hope to tweak SoFi's design to increase its swimming speed and enable it to automatically follow real fish using its fish-eye.

"We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts," says CSAIL director and co-author Daniela Rus. "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."  

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