Swimming robot mimics Amazonian fish

New robotic fin design replaces propellers, could change submersible tech

Taking a cue from nature, university researchers have built a swimming robot that is powered by a fin instead of a more boat-like propeller.

Scientists at the University of Bath announced today that they believe their robotic fish, dubbed the Gymnobot, will change the face of submersible technology. The fin, which runs the length of the robot's rigid "fish" body, undulates to make waves in the water and that propels the robot forward or even backward. The fin replaces a traditional propeller which can easily tangle in underwater weeds and generally is considered to be heavy and inefficient.

The new design, which the university noted is inspired by the Amazonian knifefish, is believed to be more efficient and better able to navigate through shallow waters tangled with growth.

"The knifefish has a ventral fin that runs the length of its body and makes a wave in the water that enables it to easily swim backwards or forwards in the water," said William Megill, researcher and lecturer in biomimetics at the university, in a statement. "Gymnobot mimics this fin and creates a wave in the water that drives it forwards. This form of propulsion is potentially much more efficient than a conventional propeller and is easier to control in shallow water near the shore."

Scientists have been increasingly taking a page from nature to build better robots.

Last year, the Sintef Group, a research company based in Trondheim, Norway, announced that it was working on a robot based on snakes. The robots, which are made of aluminum and almost five feet long, are being designed to inspect and clean complicated industrial pipe systems that are typically narrow and inaccessible to humans. The intelligent robots have multiple joints to enable them to twist vertically and climb up through pipe systems to locate leaks in water systems, inspect oil and gas pipelines and clean ventilation systems.

And engineers at BAE Systems Inc. in Nashua, N.H., also announced last year that they were designing miniature robots for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory based on birds and insects. The robots are meant to work as a distributed system -- or swarm -- to gather information and send it back in one unified stream.

As for the swimming robot project at the University of Bath, scientists said it ultimately could end up helping researchers do ecological studies near the shallow shoreline and in fast-flowing rivers, and could be used to do underwater inspections on oil rigs.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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