MIT has developed a new system meant to build a robo-starfish for studying underwater marine life quickly. Researchers say that when trying to study marine life, it helps to use a device that doesn’t scare the animals by appearing unnatural. The newly created robo-starfish is built using a new rapid development system that can create the robots in hours rather than weeks.
Researchers say that designing underwater robots is typically more challenging than designing robots meant to be used on land due to variables such as currents, water salinity, and buoyancy. Due to the challenges of designing robots for underwater use, it’s common to have to go through numerous prototypes incorporating features that predecessors lacked. That process is expensive and can take several weeks or longer to achieve a finished product.
MIT researchers wanted to develop a soft-bodied swimming robotic starfish, so they created a machine-learning-based simulation system to accelerate the development process. Based on the requirements of the researchers, the system produced a computer model illustrating how a robot could be constructed and how it would swim.
Researchers were then able to fabricate a prototype based on the model. When the robot was complete, it was tested in a water tank, and real-world performance data was fed back into the computer model to optimize it further. Using this back-and-forth fashion, the team produced a functional product within a matter of hours, with only a few prototypes being made.
The current version of the robo-starfish uses a solid silicone body with a single low-power motor connected to tendons in the forelegs of the robot. Those tendons can be squeezed and released, allowing the robot to move quietly and efficiently swim through the water.