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Swimming robot inspired by 400-million-year-old parasitic fish

The robot AgnathaX is modeled on the lamprey, a jawless, blood-sucking fish that's been largely unchanged by evolution for the past several hundred million years.

About 400 million years ago, a jawless parasitic fish was sucking blood out of a host animal without the faintest idea that one day far in the future, the fish's own distant evolutionary relatives would build a robot in its image.

That robot is AgnathaX, pictured below.


AgnathaX was named after the latin word for jawless (agnatha) and the roman numeral X, because of the 10 interconnected modules that make up the robot's artificial spinal cord.


Thankfully, blood sucking isn't part of this robot's programming. Kamilo Melo, CEO of biorobotics company KM-RoBoTa and a postdoctoral researcher with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, says the robot is designed to study the spinal cord and peripheral nervous system of a fish called the lamprey. Kamilo says these animals can teach us a lot about ourselves, because their spinal cord and peripheral nervous system are distant relatives of our own, largely unchanged over the past several hundred million years of evolution.

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The team says that their swimming robot has helped contribute new information to a long-lasting debate in neuroscience about how the central and peripheral nervous systems interact to coordinate movement. That research was published in the journal Science Robotics in August of this year.

After making numerous cuts and disruptions to the robot's spinal cord, the team observed how the robot was still able to swim because sensors on the outside (that mimic the peripheral nervous system in lampreys) allowed the robot to sense the water and compensate accordingly to keep the wavelike swimming pattern going.

The application of robotics to this type of research has allowed the scientists to study things like cuts to the spinal cord without having to injure any lampreys in the process.

Kamilo revealed that next steps for this project could involve attempts to steer the robot and test its capability to swim when there's disruption, in more turbulent waters. Farther down the line, Melo says, this research could help inform the development of future swimming robotics, particularly in the field of ocean exploration.

To see AgnathaX in action, check out the video embedded in this article.