MIT’s CSAIL lab studies aquatic life with robot fish

MIT’s CSAIL lab studies aquatic life with robot fish

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a solution to a problem faced by marine biologists around the world.

Getting a closer look at ocean life can be a challenge. Conventional methods require boats, divers, and camera rigs. Together, these tend to disturb both sea creatures and their sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs.

The observer effect also applies: the creatures’ behaviour changes as a result of them being watched.

The solution is obvious: blend in, which is why MIT has developed a robot fish, SoFi, which moves just like a real one.

Read more: Robot swans to measure water quality in Singapore

SoFi is made of silicon rubber. It has an undulating tail and can control its own buoyancy, swim in a straight line, turn and dive up or down, all controlled via a waterproof Super Nintendo controller.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” writes CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of a new article about the project published in Science Robotics.

“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.”

Exploring coral reefs without disturbing them

Swimming untethered has been a challenge for robots until now. In part, this is because using standard radio frequencies to communicate underwater is practically impossible. Instead, the SoFi system uses acoustic signals that allow divers to take control using a modified Nintendo remote from up to 70 feet away.

SoFi has had successful test dives at Fiji’s Rainbow Reef, where the robot managed depths of more than 50 feet for 40 minutes at a time. The robot fish was able to record high-res photos and videos using – appropriately enough – a fisheye lens.

“The authors show a number of technical achievements in fabrication, powering, and water resistance that allow the robot to move underwater without a tether,” says Cecilia Laschi, a professor of biorobotics at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.

“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.”

Read more: CSAIL team pairs robots with VR for smart manufacturing

Looking ahead

Katzschmann has said that plans are already in the pipeline to improve SoFi. For example, the team wants to increase the fish’s speed by improving its pump system and improving the overall design.

They also want to add tracking algorithms to allow SoFi to follow real fish automatically using its onboard camera.

“We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” says Rus. “It has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life.”

Internet of Business says

With the media’s coverage of robotics tending to focus on humanoid, industrial, transport, or aerial drone applications, marine robots are often overlooked, but in fact are a major area of development worldwide. For example, robots that move on or below the ocean waves play an important role in environmental, climate, or disaster monitoring, and have applications in offshore installation maintenance too.