Invasion of the Robofish!

30 March 2018 – Mobile autonomous systems come in all sizes, shapes, and forms, and have “invaded” every earthly habitat. That’s not news. What is news is how far the “bleeding edge” of that technology has advanced. Specifically, it’s news when a number of trends combine to make something unique.

Today I’m getting the chance to report on something that I predicted in a sci-fi novel I wrote back in 2011, and then goes at least one step further.

Last week the folks at Design World published a report on research at the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab that combines three robotics trends into one system that quietly makes something I find fascinating: a submersible mobile robot. The three trends are soft robotics, submersible unmanned systems, and biomimetic robot design.

The beasty in question is a robot fish. It’s obvious why this little guy touches on those three trends. How could a robotic fish not use soft robotic, sumersible, and biomemetic technologies? What I want to point out is how it uses those technologies and why that combination is necessary.

Soft Robotics

Folks have made ROVs (basically remotely operated submarines) for … a very long time. What they’ve pretty much all produced are clanky, propeller-driven derivatives of Jules Verne’s fictional Nautilus from his 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. That hunk of junk is a favorite of steampunk afficionados.

Not much has changed in basic submarine design since then. Modern ROVs are more maneuverable than their WWII predecessors because they add multiple propellers to push them in different directions, but the rest of it’s pretty much the same.

Soft robotics changes all that.

About 45 years ago, a half-drunk physics professor at a kegger party started bending my ear about how Mommy Nature never seemed to have discovered the wheel. The wheel’s a nearly unique human invention that Mommy Nature has pretty much done without.

Mommy Nature doesn’t use the wheel because she uses largely soft technology. Yes, she uses hard technology to make structural components like endo- and exo-skeletons to give her live beasties both protection and shape, but she stuck with soft-bodied life forms for the first four billion years of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. Adding hard-body technology in the form of notochords didn’t happen until the cambrian explosion of 541-516 million years ago, when most major animal phyla appeared.

By the way, that professor at the party was wrong. Mommy Nature invented wheels way back in the precambrian era in the form of rotary motors to power the flagella that propel unicellular free-swimmers. She just hasn’t use wheels for much else, since.

Of course, everybody more advanced than a shark has a soft body reinforced by a hard, bony skeleton.

Today’s soft robotics uses elastomeric materials to solve a number of problems for mobile automated systems.

Perhaps most importantly it’s a lot easier for soft robots to separate their insides from their outsides. That may not seem like a big deal, but think of how much trouble engineers go through to keep dust, dirt, and chemicals (such as seawater) out of the delicate gears and bearings of wheeled vehicles. Having a flexible elastomeric skin encasing the whole robot eliminates all that.

That’s not to mention skin’s job of keeping pesty little creepy crawlies out! I remember an early radio astronomer complaining that pack rats had gotten into his remote desert headquarters trailer and eaten a big chunk of his computer’s magnetic-core memory. That was back in the days when computer random-access memories were made from tiny iron beads strung on copper wires.

Another major advantage of soft bodies for mobile robots is resistance to collision damage. Think about how often you’re bumped into when crossing the room at a cocktail party. Now, think about what your hard-bodied automobile would look like after bumping into that many other cars in a parking lot. Not a pretty sight!

The flexibility of soft bodies also makes possible a lot of propulsion methods beside wheel-like propellers, caterpillar tracks, and rubber tires. That’s good because piercing soft-body skins with drive shafts to power propellers and wheels pretty much trashes the advantages of having those skins in the first place.

That’s why prosthetic devices all have elaborate cuffs to hold them to the outsides of the wearer’s limbs. Piercing the skin to screw something like Captain Hook’s hook directly into the existing bone never works out well!

So, in summary, the MIT group’s choice to start with soft-robotic technology is key to their success.

Submersible Unmanned Systems

Underwater drones have one major problem not faced by robotic cars and aircraft: radio waves don’t go through water. That means if anything happens that your none-too-intelligent automated system can’t handle, it needs guidance from a human operator. Underwater, that has largely meant tethering the robot to a human.

This issue is a wall that self-driving-car developers run into constantly (and sometimes literally). When the human behind the wheel mandated by state regulators for autonomous test vehicles falls asleep or is distracted by texting his girlfriend, BLAMMO!

The world is a chaotic place and unpredicted things pop out of nowhere all the time. Human brains are programmed to deal with this stuff, but computer technology is not, and will not be for the foreseeable future.

Drones and land vehicles, which are immersed in a sea of radio-transparent air, can rely on radio links to remote human operators to help them get out of trouble. Underwater vehicles, which are immersed in a sea of radio-opaque water, can’t.

In the past, that’s meant copper wires enclosed in physical tethers that tie the robots to the operators. Tethers get tangled, cut and hung up on everything from coral outcrops to passing whales.

There are a couple of ways out of the tether bind: ultrasonics and infra-red. Both go through water very nicely, thank you. The MIT group seems to be using my preferred comm link: ultrasonics.

Sound goes through water like you-no-what through a goose. Water also has little or no sonic “color.” That is, all frequencies of sonic waves go more-or-less equally well through water.

The biggest problem for ultrasonics is interference from all the other noise makers out there in the natural underwater world. That calls for the spread-spectrum transmission techniques invented by Hedy Lamarr. (Hah! Gotcha! You didn’t know Hedy Lamarr, aka Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was a world famous technical genius in addition to being a really cute, sexy movie actress.) Hedy’s spread-spectrum technique lets ultrasonic signals cut right through the clutter.

So, advanced submersible mobile robot technology is the second thread leading to a successful robotic fish.


Biomimetics is a 25-cent word that simply means copying designs directly from nature. It’s a time-honored short cut engineers have employed from time immemorial. Sometimes it works spectacularly, such as Thomas Wedgwood’s photographic camera (developed as an analogue of the terrestrial vertebrate eye), and sometimes not, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to make flying machines based on birds’ wings.

Obvously, Mommy Nature’s favorite fish-propulsion mechanism is highly successful, having been around for some 550 million years and still going strong. It, of course, requires a soft body anchored to a flexible backbone. It takes no imagination at all to copy it for robot fish.

The copying is the hard part because it requires developing fabrication techniques to build soft-bodied robots with flexible backbones in the first place. I’ve tried it, and it’s no mean task.

The tough part is making a muscle analogue that will drive the flexible body to move back and forth rythmically and propel the critter through the water. The answer is pneumatics.

In the early 2000s, a patent-lawyer friend of mine suggested lining both sides of a flexible membrane with tiny balloons that could be alternately inflated or deflated. When the balloons on one side were inflated, the membrane would curve away from that side. When the balloons on the other side were inflated the membrane would curve back. I played around with this idea, but never went very far with it.

The MIT group seems to have made it work using both gas (carbon dioxide) and liquid (water) for the working fluid. The difference between this kind of motor and natural muscle is that natural muscle works by pulling when energized, and the balloon system works by pushing. Otherwise, both work by balancing mechanical forces along two axes with something more-or-less flexible trapped between them.

In Nature’s fish, that something is the critter’s skeleton (backbone made up of vertebrae and stiffened vertically by long, thin spines), whereas the MIT group’s robofish uses elastomers with different stiffnesses.

Complete Package

Putting these technical trends together creates a complete package that makes it possible to build a free-swimming submersible mobile robot that moves in a natural manner at a reasonable speed without a tether. That opens up a whole range of applications, from deep-water exploration to marine biology.