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Researchers hope a Super Nintendo controller and robotic fish can change the way marine life is monitored



CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- There are lots of fish in the sea, but none quite like the one MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory recently unveiled in Science Robotics.

Let's be clear, this isn't a scaly, slimy kind of fish.

This is a soft robotic fish, known as "SoFi," which was designed to help scientists explore marine life up close.

Robert Katzschmann, a CSAIL PhD candidate and lead author of the study, said although "there's been a lot of technological progress in the world of nature film making," they wanted to find a way to document marine life without disturbing the sea creatures they were trying to observe.

"We’re very excited to see if we can use a system like this to get closer to ocean life than humans can get on their own."
Robert Katzschmann

SoFi isn't like other autonomous underwater vehicles that are currently used. It doesn't have to be tethered to a boat and it can swim freely alongside other marine life for up to 40 minutes at a time.

On top of that, researchers designed SoFi to be controlled from afar by a diver equipped with none other than a waterproof Super Nintendo game pad. Using that controller, divers can steer the robotic fish and tell it how fast to swim.

"We wanted to create a system that allows a person to send tasks to the robot from a distance," Katzschmann said in an email interview.

"This allows us to explore ocean environments from a distance, hopefully observing marine life in their natural habitats without disturbing them."
Robert Katzschmann

The soft robotic fish consists of silicone elastomer, plastic sheets, flexible 3D printed plastic, a battery, electronics, an acoustic microphone, a pump and a fisheye camera.

Robert Katzschmann, MIT CSAIL

In an email interview, Katzschmann explained that the fish's motor pumps water into two different chambers of the tail and then "as one chamber expands, it bends and flexes to one side, and when the motor pumps water into the other channel, that one bends and flexes in the other direction."

That's what allows SoFi's tail to mimic the movements of actual fish.

And because SoFi is equipped with that handy fisheye camera, Katzschmann said it will be useful for biologists who wish to study fish and other sea creatures in their natural habitat.

Beyond that, Katzschmann said, "another application of the system is to use several modules as a network of sensor nodes swimming in the ocean and recording data. The fish can not only gather video, but potentially also other sensor data as well as taking water samples."

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