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This flexible and autonomous underwater robot is able to explore the abyss

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While robots currently exploring the seabed are usually quite bulky, researchers recently presented an alternative approach. They have indeed used soft robotics to design an autonomous underwater robot of a new kind.

An autonomous underwater robot up to more than 3,000 m deep

In 2019, we were talking about the spectacular Aquanaut, a “transform” robot. It looks like a kind of submarine which turns into a robot once it arrives at the place of its mission. If this machine perhaps embodies a new generation of underwater robotsIt should be noted that there has been very little progress in this area in recent decades.

However, researchers recently presented a new approach, as evidenced by a publication in the journal Nature on March 3, 2021. This team from Zhejiang University (China) mentioned soft robotics to go against the current of current underwater robots. Let us recall in passing that this kind of robots and other vehicles have a very thick metal shell in order to withstand the pressures exerted by the seabed.

Researchers in the study said they had designed a more compact and resilient first version of their robot. The latter is able to move independently and has reached a 3,224 m depth without assistance during the first tests.

Credit: Zhejiang University / Nature

A unique configuration

Scientists explained having been inspired by Liparidae, a genus of slugfish living in the abyss. They do not benefit from any external protection to withstand the pressure. Thus, the electronic components of the machine have been the subject of an unprecedented separation and distribution inside. Then, the whole integrated a silicone envelope. This configuration helps reduce stress that generates the pressure on the material.

Two fins allow the robot to move and dielectric elastomers act as muscles. This type of soft material is thus capable of deforming under the effect of an electric current. If the robot was able to move more than 3,000m deep, a human pilot was able to do so descend to more than 10,000 m. The tests were carried out in the Mariana Trench, known to be the deepest oceanic trench on the planet (10,994 m).

If this first version is a success, some improvements are possible. Its speed is currently 5.19 cm per second or 0.19 km / h, which is rather slow. In addition, the robot does not withstand currents very well, so that it sometimes risks being carried away. On the other hand, the manufacturing costs are very interesting and the scientific world awaits the next improvements of the robot to test it and perhaps adopt it.


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