Words by Tiana Cline
Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, the robot apocalypse is underway. Robot vacuum cleaners are zooming around our houses, sucking up the dirt from our carpets with finesse (and sometimes taking domestic cats along for the ride). They’re in our gardens, mowing our lawns down to the precise centimetre. They’re teaching our kids how to code.
Yet, robots for the home are only a small peek into how this kind of technology is changing the world around us. We’re currently overwhelmed with ecological issues around climate change, plastic pollution and how overfishing is wreaking havoc on ocean life. We’ve seen major retailers such as Woolworths and Pick n Pay taking big steps to eliminate their plastic packaging.
But the images on social media, which show animals entangled in plastic, dead seabirds in bulk, divers swimming in a debris of junk and beached whales with bellyfuls of our rubbish are only one part of the story. Researchers are now talking about microplastic pollution: While almost invisible, these materials get ingested by the smallest sea creatures and may travel all the way up the food chain to humans. The long-term consequences are not yet known, but the chemicals that are absorbed to the surface of marine litter can be dangerous to human and marine health.
In March 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) unveiled SoFi – a versatile robotic fish that looks and swims like a fish but is actually an undersea robot. SoFi, which is short for soft robotic fish, will swim among the fishes, giving scientists a new way to observe sea creatures without disturbing them. And unlike a remote-controlled machine, for example, SoFi will not startle the creatures around it – in her trial swim around Fiji, she had fish swimming alongside her.
Daniela Rus, a researcher from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), exclaimed that “[SoFi] is elegant and beautiful to watch in motion. We were excited to see that our fish could swim side by side with real fish, and they didn’t swim away. This is quite different to when a human diver approaches.”
SoFi is 45 cm long and can swim at 23 cm a second up to 18 metres under the surface for 45 minutes until its battery runs out. Researchers at MIT believe that the robot will be able to provide information about ecosystems affected by climate change and pollution by collecting intelligence on ocean behaviour.
SoFi is not the first autonomous underwater robot by any means, but because the robot is not tethered to a boat or powered by bulky and expensive propellers, it has a big advantage under the sea. SoFi has a camera system – a fisheye lens, ironically – which communicates with scientists using sound waves which, unlike radio signals, can travel underwater.
According to MIT News, “SoFi has a much simpler and more lightweight set-up, with a single camera, a motor, and the same lithium polymer battery that’s found in consumer smartphones. To make the robot swim, the motor pumps water into two balloon-like chambers in the fish’s tail that operate like a set of pistons in an engine. As one chamber expands, it bends and flexes to one side; when the actuators push water to the other channel, that one bends and flexes in the other direction.”
These alternating actions create a side-to-side motion that mimics the movement of a real fish. It’s a clever way to help biologists monitor the health of marine habitats without stressing out their fishy friends.
SoFi has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life. “We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” concludes Rus.