robot-fish-1Mother Nature’s mechanical and computing techniques are the subject of much admiration among computer researchers. That’s why a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created swimming robotic fish.

The robots can swim through water in a school or otherwise maneuver in places where underwater submarines can’t go. By creating machines that mimic biological functions, the researchers hope to produce robots with fluid movements that are far more nimble than today’s machines.

Mechanical engineers Kamal Youcef-Toumi (pictured) and Pablo Valdivia Y Alvarado designed the fish so they can be used to inspect submerged structures such as boats, oil and gas pipes, and detect environmental pollution. The could also patrol ports, lakes and rivers. And if you lose a few fish, it’s not nearly as expensive as losing a submarine.

Robot fish were first investigated at MIT as far back as 1994, when MIT ocean engineers created Robotuna, a four-feet long fish with 2,843 parts. The new fish are less than a foot long, are powered by one motor and have fewer than 10 components. The motor in the fish’s midsection creates a wave that travels along the fish’s body, propelling it forward. That’s similar to the way real fish swim. The motor produces controlled vibrations.

The fish are made from soft plastic, making them more maneuverable like real fish. The researchers say their techniques might be useful in creating movement for robotic limbs. The researchers have been able to create fish that can swim about a tenth as fast as real fish. The robotic fish can swim one body length per second. They can run on 2.5 watts to 5 watts of power. The researchers hope to power the robots with a small internal battery in the future. What’s next? Robotic salamanders and manta rays.

The work was funded by the Singapore-MIT Alliance and Schlumberger.

[Photo credit: Patrick Gillooly/MIT]