5. Something wondrous
Vast swaths of Earth's oceans are unexplored and the details of their inhabitants' personal lives are unknown. Nowadays, researchers peer into this world with remote operated vehicles that can surprise fish and are expensive to build. MIT graduate student Robert Katzschmann sees a future filled with swarming robotic fish that can more discreetly "find out the secrets of the ocean."
On Wednesday in Science Robotics, he and his colleagues reported building a soft robotic fish — dubbed SoFi — that can swim at depths of up to 60 feet alongside divers who occasionally ping it directions to dive or speed up.
The specs: SoFi's key feature is a soft tail made of rubbery silicone that starts off with a beeswax skeleton inside. The beeswax is then melted away, similar to how sculptors use lost-wax casting to create intricacies in their work. One way to then normally move the robot would be to pump air between the remaining hollow spaces. But, since that would raise the problem of buoyancy with this underwater robot, the researchers instead pushed seawater back and forth between the chambers in order to move the tail.
The foot-and-a-half-long SoFi has a camera, battery (it can currently swim for 45 minutes), visual sensors and a microphone on its back to catch the ultrasonic swimming commands.
Where it will go: So far, the robotic fish has navigated Fiji's Somosomo Strait but Katzschmann imagines it one day inspecting oil rigs, collecting data about the behavior of marine animals in their environment, or spotting rarely witnessed underwater events, like the birth of a southern right whale. "Imagine using the fish to observe the mysteries of the whale," MIT professor Daniela Rus says.