MacIver Builds Robot Fish (if only it were MacGyver)

Human are really good at building vehicles to travel really fast in really straight directions. However, we kind of suck at maneuverability, especially when compared to most of the animal kingdom. For instance, I’m pretty sure that a cat could beat a Ferrari around a baseball diamond and that nearly every bird in the sky could fly circles around an F-15, much less a commercial airliner.

The phenomenon certainly extends to the sea; speed boats and submarines don’t exactly turn on a dime. This lack of nimbleness was especially apparent during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year, when drones sent to cap the well often rammed into it rather than sealing the leak. If only we were smart enough to build robots and machines that could move around like nature intended…

Oh wait. We are.

Malcolm MacIver, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, has built a robotic black ghost knifefish. That’s right, MacGyver built a robotic fish. Or, well, close enough.

In a giant “WTF” moment, one of MacIver’s graduate students spotted his pet knifefish moving vertically in its aquarium. Neither had ever seen the animal do this before, and were perplexed seeing as its only means of locomotion is a horizontal curtain-like fin that ripples back and forth. But after some study, the two discovered that if the fish sends a ripple from both ends at the same time, they meet in the middle, cancelling out the horizontal motion while simultaneously shooting a jet of water vertically below it.

So they set out to build it.

The scientists hired Kinea Design, a design firm founded by Northwestern faculty that specializes in human interactive mechatronics. And 32 individually controlled artificial fin rays and $200,000 later, they had a working model.

If you watch the video, the robot is actually pretty cool. Sure, it doesn’t really look like a fish, but it can swim just like one. Once the group figures out how to mimic the knifefish’s sensor system of electromagnetic fields (it lives where it is too dark to see), they may create a robot capable of complex underwater recover operations or long-term monitoring of oceanic environments, like fragile coral reefs.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: I love it when science mimics nature.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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