Engineers devise a modular system to produce efficient, scalable aquabots

April 01, 2023

The team has demonstrated the new system in two different example configurations, one like an eel and the other a wing-like hydrofoil. The work is being reported today in the journal Soft Robotics, in a paper by MIT research assistant Alfonso Parra Rubio, professors Michael Triantafyllou and Neil Gershenfeld, and six others. Existing approaches to soft robotics for marine applications are generally made on small scales, while many useful real-world applications require devices on scales of meters. “Scalability is a strong point for us,” says Parra Rubio. “Treating soft versus hard robotics is a false dichotomy,” Parra Rubio says.

Underwater structures that can change their shapes dynamically, the way fish do, push through water much more efficiently than conventional rigid hulls. But constructing deformable devices that can change the curve of their body shapes while maintaining a smooth profile is a long and difficult process. MIT’s RoboTuna, for example, was composed of about 3,000 different parts and took about two years to design and build.

Now, researchers at MIT and their colleagues — including one from the original RoboTuna team — have come up with an innovative approach to building deformable underwater robots, using simple repeating substructures instead of unique components. The team has demonstrated the new system in two different example configurations, one like an eel and the other a wing-like hydrofoil. The principle itself, however, allows for virtually unlimited variations in form and scale, the researchers say.

The work is being reported today in the journal Soft Robotics, in a paper by MIT research assistant Alfonso Parra Rubio, professors Michael Triantafyllou and Neil Gershenfeld, and six others.

Existing approaches to soft robotics for marine applications are generally made on small scales, while many useful real-world applications require devices on scales of meters. The new modular system the researchers propose could easily be extended to such sizes and beyond, without requiring the kind of retooling and redesign that would be needed to scale up current systems.

“Scalability is a strong point for us,” says Parra Rubio. Given the low density and high stiffness of the lattice-like pieces, called voxels, that make up their system, he says, “we have more room to keep scaling up,” whereas most currently used technologies “rely on high-density materials facing drastic problems” in moving to larger sizes.

The individual voxels in the team’s experimental, proof-of-concept devices are mostly hollow structures made up of cast plastic pieces with narrow struts in complex shapes. The box-like shapes are load-bearing in one direction but soft in others, an unusual combination achieved by blending stiff and flexible components in different proportions.

“Treating soft versus hard robotics is a false dichotomy,” Parra Rubio says. “This is something in between, a new way to construct things.” Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, adds that “this is a third way that marries the best elements of both.”

“Smooth flexibility of the body surface allows us to implement flow control that can reduce drag and improve propulsive efficiency, resulting in substantial fuel saving,” says Triantafyllou, who is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering, and was part of the RoboTuna team.

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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