Science

MIT built a robot fish that can explore coral reefs in the name of science

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Coral reefs are in big trouble. A combination of climate change and humanity’s inability to clean up after itself has devastated a huge amount of reef coverage, which also happens to be the habitat of many fish and other aquatic animals. If we lose the reefs we destabilize the entire ocean ecosystem, and the effects won’t just be felt by sea creatures. In these dire times it’s important for scientists to be able to monitor the condition of reefs and the animal populations that rely on them, but doing so can be incredibly challenging with current technology. Thankfully, MIT came up with an answer.

Researchers at the institute have developed a soft-bodied robotic fish that can give scientists an up-close-and-personal glimpse at marine life without many of the risks that are typically associated with ocean observation. The mechanical mariner, called “SoFi,” is so similar to a real fish that sea life doesn’t even seem to notice it, and that’s a big win for science.

SoFi looks pretty simple from the exterior, with a fish-like body, several fins, and a flexible tail. A fisheye camera is positioned up front and relays video back to its handlers, and the robot can operate for up to 40 minutes at a time before needing to return for a recharge. Inside, however, some seriously high-tech mechanical bits work tirelessly to replicate the movement of real sea life.

As MIT News describes, the robot uses a pair of inflatable chambers in its tail that are inflated at offsetting intervals to mimic the tail-swiping movement of a real fish. This flexible system can be tweaked on the fly to change the speed of the robot and aid in maneuvering.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” MIT CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of a new paper published in Science Robotics, explains. “We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”

In their testing, the researchers say that other aquatic life doesn’t seem bothered by the robot, which is a sharp contrast to many bulky underwater camera system that scientists use for observation. Decreasing the stress on the animals while being able to study them is of utmost importance, and MIT seems to have nailed that in a big way.

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