The ocean covers more than 70 percent of our planet, and yet we’ve only seen a small fraction of these waters and all the marine life within them.
But what if we could explore the ocean through the eyes of a fish? Thanks to MIT computer scientists, that’s now a possibility.
Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory unveiled on Wednesday a robotic fish, dubbed SoFi, that can swim right alongside real fish and take high-resolution photos and videos.
SoFi is a soft robot, meaning it’s made of flexible materials, unlike rigid robots that are difficult to make waterproof, can crash into things or make loud noises when they move.
“We were excited to try to make a soft robot that could move in a way that mimics real fish, so it could observe marine life without disturbing them,” said Joseph DelPreto, a PhD student at MIT and one of the authors of the paper on SoFi published Wednesday.
Other underwater robots often use propellers or jet streams to move around, which make noise and bother marine life.
SoFi instead wiggles through the water just like a fish. A small motor fills two balloon-like chambers with water so they bend the tail in alternate motions, causing it to wave back and forth.
“We want to try to help people understand how the ocean environment behaves when [marine life] aren’t disturbed by humans,” DelPreto added, “so people can see the natural habitats.”
The robot, which is about 18 inches in length and around 3.5 pounds, can also control its own buoyancy. An underwater remote fashioned out of a Nintendo controller lets divers control its direction, but the next step is to program SoFi to identify and follow fish all on its own.
“With improvements on its own fish AI, you might say, we will be able to use the camera and video to identify a fish and then to continually track the fish,” said Robert Katzschmann, also a Phd student and study author. “The very clear next step is to take this system and do some tracking for studies, to allow biologists to say, ‘Follow this fish around and observe it.’”
SoFi can also swim among coral reefs or through narrow passages humans and bulky equipment can’t get into. SoFi has already been on test dives in which it swam 40 minutes, reaching depths of more than 50 feet. To the researchers, this is just the beginning.
“We imagine having more of these robots in the ocean,” DelPreto said, “making a swarm of robot fish to monitor more of the environment and get more information on how marine life behaves.”