US Navy research fish-shaped robot

February 18, 2020

In an engineering laboratory at Virginia Tech, a white jellyfish slowly rose up and down in a small tank. In a similar environment at the University of Virginia, a manta ray "flyes" on a pair of wing-shaped fins. Although they all look the same, they are not true.

Jellyfish and manta rays are machines, connected to power and computers, but the goal is to be able to act independently one day. Part of their development funding comes from the US Navy, and the US Navy is supporting some researchers across the country to develop machines that look and act like real animals.

Designers envision that these robotic fish can perform a range of tasks, from cleaning up leaked oil to espionage. But the Navy said that this study is only a basic study of the power propulsion system, and there is no special application. Whether or not these studies will develop groups of artificial jellyfish, or vessels that act like manta rays, the purpose of exploration is the same – improving the design of nature.

It's not easy to build a better "manta". The University of Virginia is the fifth year to advance the $6.5 million investment, and its partners include the University of California at Los Angeles, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania. A real fish-sized silicon material manta ray was tested in a swimming pool at the University of Virginia. The robot fish moved up and down like a real fish, the only difference being that it was connected to a wire.

Trava Kemp, a graduate student who participated in the project, said that robotic manta rays can carry environmental monitors or draw underwater maps. He said that current drawing devices are shaped like torpedoes, and this shape limits their mobility. Hilary Bart-Smith, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said robotic manta rays can be used to inspect underwater piling of bridges or to track drug-trafficking submarines without being discovered.

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