Soft robotic fish swims alongside real ones in coral reefs

This month scientists published rare footage of one of the Arctic’s most elusive sharks. The findings demonstrate that, even with many technological advances in recent years, it remains a challenging task to document marine life up close.

But MIT computer scientists believe they have a possible solution: using robots.

In a paper out today, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled “SoFi,” a soft robotic fish that can independently swim alongside real fish in the ocean.

During test dives in the Rainbow Reef in Fiji, SoFi swam at depths of more than 50 feet for up to 40 minutes at once, nimbly handling currents and taking high-resolution photos and videos using (what else?) a fisheye lens.

Using its undulating tail and a unique ability to control its own buoyancy, SoFi can swim in a straight line, turn, or dive up or down. The team also used a waterproofed Super Nintendo controller and developed a custom acoustic communications system that enabled them to change SoFi’s speed and have it make specific moves and turns.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” says CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the new journal article published today 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.”

Katzschmann worked on the project and wrote the paper with CSAIL director Daniela Rus, graduate student Joseph DelPreto and former postdoc Robert MacCurdy, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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