Robot fish’s battery blood bodes well for autonomy

cornell builds new robotic fish with circulatory system

A team at Cornell University has developed a swimming robotic lionfish. The interesting innovation allowing the fish to swim is a synthetic circulatory system that pumps “robot blood” composed of battery fluid to the fish’s various components and motors, as Futurism reports.

Although the fish isn’t very fast, the robot blood frees it from heavy battery packs and also significantly increases the amount of energy it can store. It’s a step in the right direction on the road to more autonomous robots. It also showcases how useful mother nature’s design can be in making robots more like their fleshy counterparts.

Developing autonomous bots that can operate for extended periods is one of the big challenges in robotics. The applications for autonomous bots are endless, but a few examples include deep-sea exploration or search and rescue.

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An Energy Crisis

Energy is one of the main obstacles in making machines more autonomous. Simply adding traditional battery packs is a catch-22, as batteries weigh the bot down causing it to use more power. This energy crisis is why the Cornell team’s breakthrough is noteworthy.

Rather than use standard hydraulic fluid, which most conventional machines circulate throughout their systems to moving parts, the fish runs on “flow batteries.” The system consists of dual electrodes and an electrolyte fluid that circulates between them. As the liquid flows, it energizes pumps in the fish’s fins and tail.

The liquid also regulates pressure, causing some parts of the fish to expand and others to contract, enabling movement. For example, the fluid expands one side of the fish’s tail, causing the other side to compress. This effect creates a bending motion that propels the fish forward. But propulsion is one of the things the Cornell team still needs to improve.

Speeding Things Up

The 40-centimeter silicon fish can move at about 1.5 body lengths per minute. “1.5 body lengths per minute—that’s very slow,” team member and Cornell University engineer Robert Smith said. “Kind of like a loiter for a fish.” Next, the team plans to work on the power of the fish’s propulsion. But the real breakthrough is in the fish’s energy efficiency.

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The fish’s energy-efficient design, complete with power-saving robot blood, means that it can store 325% more energy than if it used a conventional battery pack. The team projected that the fish could swim for 37 hours without recharging. But if researchers can find a way to combine longevity with speed, look out.

If an underwater robot could operate for days without recharging and zip speedily from one locale to another, it’s value in sifting through shipwrecks or conducting search and rescue would be huge. Of course, autonomous robots aren’t just gliding through the seas. Much like the evolution of life itself, they are climbing onto land and taking to the skies.