Nothing fishy here! MIT builds soft, robotic swimmer

MIT's robotic fish can change direction in a split second, much like the creature it mimics

MIT researchers have created a soft, autonomous robotic fish that can change direction in a fraction of a second -- nearly as fast as a real fish can.

The softness of the robot enables the machine to continuously change into an "infinite range" of configurations, according to MIT.

Each side of the robotic fish's tail has a long, undulating channel inside it. A canister in the robot's body releases bursts of carbon dioxide, inflating the channel and causing the tail to sway back and forth, propelling the robot and allowing it to turn quickly in the water.

"We're excited about soft robots for a variety of reasons," said Daniela Rus, a professor of computer science and engineering and director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "As robots penetrate the physical world and start interacting with people, it's much easier to" keep them safe "if their bodies are so wonderfully soft that there's no danger if they whack you."

MIT scientists have developed a soft, robotic fish that could one day study schools of fish and their environment. (Video: MIT)

The device was developed by Rus and colleague Andrew Marchese, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,

Rus said soft robotics allows developers to create machines that can withstand collisions and thus move much more efficiently.

"In some cases, it is actually advantageous for these robots to bump into the environment, because they can use these points of contact as means of getting to the destination faster," Rus said in a statement.

"And the fact that the body deforms continuously gives these machines an infinite range of configurations, and this is not achievable with machines that are hinged. A rigid-body robot could not do continuous bending," she added.

The MIT development comes after scientists at New York University created a small, flying vehicle designed to move like a boneless, pulsating, water-dwelling jellyfish. Work on the robotic jellyfish, unveiled last November, stemmed from previous work done on small bug-like flying robots.

Last spring, Harvard University researchers announced the development of an insect-like robot that flies by flapping its wings. The flying robot weighs about 1/30th as much as a U.S. penny.

MIT noted that its research team is using 3D printer technology. The mold for the fish's tail and head from silicone rubber and the polymer ring that protects the electronics in the fish's guts was built by a 3D printer.

Rus said the robotic fish should eventually be able to work for 30 minutes at a time on various tasks, such as swimming amid a school of fish to gather information about their behavior and habitat.

Robotic fish
MIT doctoral student Andrew Marchese, shows off a soft robotic fish he helped to develop. (Image: M. Scott Brauer)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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