Submersible Robotic Fishoplane Can Swim for Hundreds of Kilometers

It may look like a jet fighter, but Grace is a robotic fish designed to sniff out pollution underwater

2 min read
Submersible Robotic Fishoplane Can Swim for Hundreds of Kilometers

As much as this may look like a fighter jet or spaceship, the folks at Xiaobo Tan's lab at Michigan State University are calling it a robotic fish. A robotic fish with a giant pair of wings that allow it to glide through the water with an incredible level of efficiency, giving this little guy a range of about 200 kilometers without having to be recharged. And why do we need a robot fish? BECAUSE IT'S A ROBOT FISH. Geez. And also because it can sniff out pollution for us.

The name of this robot fish is Grace, which stands for “Gliding Robot ACE.” We're not sure what "ACE" stands for, and we'd welcome any guesses. The gliding bit is the secret to this robot's efficiency: inside Grace's body/fuselage sits a battery pack mounted on a rail that runs from nose to tail. By shifting this relatively heavy bit back and forth along the rail, Grace changes her center of gravity, and pitches downward or upward. Combined with the a battery-powered pump that alters her buoyancy directly, she'll start to either ascend or descend in the water column, and as she does so, those wings convert the vertical motion into horizontal motion essentially for free. Here's a video:

The only time Grace is actually expending energy is when she switches from descent to ascent and vice versa: the rest of the time, her buoyancy is being converted into forward thrust by the wings. It's not very fast, and Grace isn't very maneuverable while moving this way, but she can go for a long, long time: Xiaobo Tan estimates that she's good for some 200 km on one single charge of her batteries. For those times that Grace needs to change direction or kick her speed up a notch, she's also got a powered tail that pushes her along just like a real fish.

Grace certainly isn't the first pollution-sniffing ocean glider; iRobot, for example, has been using its Seagliders very effectively for years. But Grace likely is among the smallest in this category, and the addition of a tail gives her the ability to work in shallower areas or in moving water (like in rivers and lakes) where gliding isn't ideal.

So what's Grace up to? Basically, she's equipped with a sensor package (like an oil detection system), and then she wanders around taking samples and wirelessly sending back data. In real world trials in the Kalamazoo River, Grace has proven to be quite effective, and she looks like she's a promising platform for all sort of research. And she'd be good for military operations, too, if they'd just outfit her with a couple torpedo tubes. Just a helpful suggestion, guys.

[ Xiaobo Tan ] via [ MSU ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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