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Soft and silent eel-like robot can sneak around underwater

A transparent eel-like robot that swims with artificial muscles could one day lurk in the ocean to study the underwater world.

"It's really hard to sneak up on a fish, especially if you're a robot," says nanoengineering student Caleb Christianson, one of the developers of a soft eel-like robot that can swim underwater in stealthy silence.

Christianson, a doctoral student at the University of California San Diego, is part of an eel-bot team that includes engineers and marine biologists. Their eel-like creation could one day become a preferred way to study marine life since it's not as big and loud as the motor-driven remote-operated underwater vehicles used today.

The transparent robot measures about a foot (30 centimeters) long and uses soft artificial muscles to move. The eel-bot uses a clever system of electrical charges applied to salt water around it and to pouches of water inside its "muscles." This causes it to undulate, much like an eel. 

The researchers tested the robot in a tank at the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

University of California San Diego

"The charges are located just outside the robot's surface and carry very little current so they are safe for nearby marine life," UC San Diego says. The researchers published a paper on the robot Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics

As more roboticists look to nature for cues, other researchers are working on bio-inspired underwater robots. A team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for example, recently shared details on a fish-like robot. The UC team says their eel is likely the softest underwater robot yet developed. Softer robots are less likely to damage underwater structures like coral reefs or the animals themselves if they accidentally come into contact with them. 

The team tested the machine in salt-water aquarium tanks with coral, fish and jelly fish. The eel-bot is currently tethered to an electronics board that sits on the surface of the water, but the researchers hope to create an untethered version and build a "head" that will house sensors for collecting data. 

The next development steps will focus on the reliability of the design and a system of weights that will allow for deeper dives. The robot could one day give us a fresh look at ocean life as the robot blends quietly into its underwater environment.

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