Soft robotic fish moves like the real thing

Andrew Marchese, doctoral candidate in EECS at MIT (right), and Dr. Daniela Rus, professor in EECS and Director of CSAIL, hold a soft robotic fish developed by the Distributed Robotics Laboratory. PHOTO: M. SCOTT BRAUER

A new robotic fish can change direction almost as rapidly as a real fish.

Soft robots — which don’t just have soft exteriors but are also powered by fluid flowing through flexible channels — have become a sufficiently popular research topic that they now have their own journal, Soft Robotics. In the first issue of that journal, out this month, MIT researchers report the first self-contained autonomous soft robot capable of rapid body motion: a “fish” that can execute an escape maneuver, convulsing its body to change direction in just a fraction of a second, or almost as quickly as a real fish can.

“We’re excited about soft robots for a variety of reasons,” says Daniela Rus, a professor of computer science and engineering, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and one of the researchers who designed and built the fish. “As robots penetrate the physical world and start interacting with people more and more, it’s much easier to make robots safe if their bodies are so wonderfully soft that there’s no danger if they whack you.”

Another reason to study soft robots, Rus says, is that “with soft machines, the whole robotic planning problem changes.” In most robotic motion-planning systems, avoiding collisions with the environment is the highest priority. That frequently leads to inefficient motion, because the robot has to settle for collision-free trajectories that it can find quickly.

With soft robots, collision poses little danger to either the robot or the environment. “In some cases, it is actually advantageous for these robots to bump into the environment, because they can use these points of contact as means of getting to the destination faster,” Rus says.

But the new robotic fish was designed to explore yet a third advantage of soft robots: “The fact that the body deforms continuously gives these machines an infinite range of configurations, and this is not achievable with machines that are hinged,” Rus says. The continuous curvature of the fish’s body when it flexes is what allows it to change direction so quickly. “A rigid-body robot could not do continuous bending,” she says.

Escape velocity

The robotic fish was built by Andrew Marchese, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and lead author on the new paper, where he’s joined by Rus and postdoc Cagdas D. Onal. Each side of the fish’s tail is bored through with a long, tightly undulating channel. Carbon dioxide released from a canister in the fish’s abdomen causes the channel to inflate, bending the tail in the opposite direction.

Each half of the fish tail has just two control parameters: the diameter of the nozzle that releases gas into the channel and the amount of time it’s left open. In experiments, Marchese found that the angle at which the fish changes direction — which can be as extreme as 100 degrees — is almost entirely determined by the duration of inflation, while its speed is almost entirely determined by the nozzle diameter. That “decoupling” of the two parameters, he says, is something that biologists had observed in real fish.

“To be honest, that’s not something I designed for,” Marchese says. “I designed for it to look like a fish, but we got the same inherent parameter decoupling that real fish have.”

That points to yet another possible application of soft robotics, Rus says, in biomechanics. “If you build an artificial creature with a particular bio-inspired behavior, perhaps the solution for the engineered behavior could serve as a hypothesis for understanding whether nature might do it in the same way,” she says.

Marchese built the fish in Rus’ lab, where other researchers are working on printable robotics. He used the lab’s 3-D printer to build the mold in which he cast the fish’s tail and head from silicone rubber and the polymer ring that protects the electronics in the fish’s guts.

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Surprisingly simple scheme for self-assembling robots

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Small cubes with no exterior moving parts can propel themselves forward, jump on top of each other, and snap together to form arbitrary shapes.

In 2011, when an MIT senior named John Romanishin proposed a new design for modular robots to his robotics professor, Daniela Rus, she said, “That can’t be done.”

Two years later, Rus showed her colleague Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher at Cornell University, a video of prototype robots, based on Romanishin’s design, in action. “That can’t be done,” Lipson said.

In November, Romanishin — now a research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) — Rus, and postdoc Kyle Gilpin will establish once and for all that it can be done, when they present a paper describing their new robots at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

Known as M-Blocks, the robots are cubes with no external moving parts. Nonetheless, they’re able to climb over and around one another, leap through the air, roll across the ground, and even move while suspended upside down from metallic surfaces.

Inside each M-Block is a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute; when the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube. On each edge of an M-Block, and on every face, are cleverly arranged permanent magnets that allow any two cubes to attach to each other.

“It’s one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time,” says Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it — despite being discouraged.”

Embodied abstraction

As Rus explains, researchers studying reconfigurable robots have long used an abstraction called the sliding-cube model. In this model, if two cubes are face to face, one of them can slide up the side of the other and, without changing orientation, slide across its top.

The sliding-cube model simplifies the development of self-assembly algorithms, but the robots that implement them tend to be much more complex devices. Rus’ group, for instance, previously developed a modular robot called the Molecule, which consisted of two cubes connected by an angled bar and had 18 separate motors. “We were quite proud of it at the time,” Rus says.

According to Gilpin, existing modular-robot systems are also “statically stable,” meaning that “you can pause the motion at any point, and they’ll stay where they are.” What enabled the MIT researchers to drastically simplify their robots’ design was giving up on the principle of static stability.

“There’s a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air,” Gilpin says. “And you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That’s something that’s totally unique to this system.”

That’s also what made Rus skeptical about Romanishin’s initial proposal. “I asked him build a prototype,” Rus says. “Then I said, ‘OK, maybe I was wrong.’”

Sticking the landing

To compensate for its static instability, the researchers’ robot relies on some ingenious engineering. On each edge of a cube are two cylindrical magnets, mounted like rolling pins. When two cubes approach each other, the magnets naturally rotate, so that north poles align with south, and vice versa. Any face of any cube can thus attach to any face of any other.

The cubes’ edges are also beveled, so when two cubes are face to face, there’s a slight gap between their magnets. When one cube begins to flip on top of another, the bevels, and thus the magnets, touch. The connection between the cubes becomes much stronger, anchoring the pivot. On each face of a cube are four more pairs of smaller magnets, arranged symmetrically, which help snap a moving cube into place when it lands on top of another.

As with any modular-robot system, the hope is that the modules can be miniaturized: the ultimate aim of most such research is hordes of swarming microbots that can self-assemble, like the “liquid steel” androids in the movie “Terminator II.” And the simplicity of the cubes’ design makes miniaturization promising.

But the researchers believe that a more refined version of their system could prove useful even at something like its current scale. Armies of mobile cubes could temporarily repair bridges or buildings during emergencies, or raise and reconfigure scaffolding for building projects. They could assemble into different types of furniture or heavy equipment as needed. And they could swarm into environments hostile or inaccessible to humans, diagnose problems, and reorganize themselves to provide solutions.

Strength in diversity

The researchers also imagine that among the mobile cubes could be special-purpose cubes, containing cameras, or lights, or battery packs, or other equipment, which the mobile cubes could transport. “In the vast majority of other modular systems, an individual module cannot move on its own,” Gilpin says. “If you drop one of these along the way, or something goes wrong, it can rejoin the group, no problem.”

“It’s one of those things that you kick yourself for not thinking of,” Cornell’s Lipson says. “It’s a low-tech solution to a problem that people have been trying to solve with extraordinarily high-tech approaches.”

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