Soft robotic fish blends right in with the real ones

A snapshot of SoFi and its controller — a modified SNES gamepad.  
     Image MIT CSAIL

But the new version-called SoFi, for Soft Robotic Fish-is a step up from previous generations of robotic fish because it can be maneuvered up and down to depths of up to 18 meters.

Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a soft robotic fish named "SoFi", created to replicate the movements of a harmless fish so it can independently swim alongside sea life without setting off any alarm bells.

"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.

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

Up until now, SoFi doesn't seem to aggravate the developments of other fish. The result of this is an alternating, side-to-side motion of the robot's tail, which mimics the action of a real fish and propels it through the water at customizable speeds.

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The team intends to make SoFi even smarter so it can make decisions without a human diver feeding it instruction and move in a coordinated group of robot fish.

"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 most obvious issue with robotics underwater is the fact that electronics don't generally play nice with water. SoFi can also be controlled through an acoustic communication system that allows researchers to direct its motion. This problem was solved by using ultrasonic signals that can interact with a custom remote control.

It is meant to swim normally close by other fish in untamed water and keep an eye on them without raising doubts or irritating their common environment.

While SoFi isn't completely finished, this robotic fish is shaping up to swim just as well as its living and breathing counterparts and has the potential to be quite useful for continued study.

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