Scientists studying marine life have to figure out ways to get cameras into areas that are too dense or dangerous for people to enter. This often means sending delicate equipment into places where collisions are both likely and damaging and that equipment is generally tethered to ships or other objects. To really see what is going on in the underwater world, a better approach is needed.
Scientists at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory believe they have the answer: a robotic fish they call SoFi. It is an autonomous underwater vehicle that looks like a fish, swims like a fish, and even has a fish-eyed lens for its built-in camera.
SoFi has an undulating tail and a unique ability to control its own buoyancy. It can swim in a straight line, turn, or dive up and down. It uses water pumped into two balloon-like chambers in the tail to swim. The entire back half of the robotic fish is made of silicone rubber and flexible plastic, so it is soft and resilient against damage. Its buoyancy is controlled by a chamber that compresses and decompresses air.
SoFi is actually controlled by a waterproofed Super Nintendo game controller. Creating the robot involved advancements in fabrication, powering, and water resistance that allow it to move underwater without a tether. Such a system can help explore coral reefs more closely than existing equipment because it can get closer and can be better accepted by marine species. It has already been used in test dives in the Rainbow Reef in Fiji, swimming at depths of more than 50 feet for up to 40 minutes at a time.
Perhaps the biggest worry is whether something may come along and eat SoFi.
Photo courtesy of MIT.