The team's next steps include plans to increase the speed of the fish by improving the pump system. They also hope to modify the on-board camera so the bot can automatically follow real fish, and to eventually build additional swimmy bots for biologists to study particular environments.
As to potential far-future applications, Katzschmann said the sea's the limit.
“We could use them to inspect underwater infrastructure like oil rigs and pipelines, which would allow for the more regular maintenance of hardware,” he said. “I imagine that you could one day use systems like this to capture water samples, enabling [scientists] to learn about more remote parts of the ocean.”
The project is part of a larger initiative at MIT CSAIL focused on soft robots, which researchers say have the potential to be safer, sturdier, and more nimble than traditional robots in underwater environments. The SoFi bot is also part of an accelerating movement in the robotics field to develop and deploy swimming and diving robots.
RELATED: New and Improved RoboBee Flies, Dives, Swims, Then Flies Again
The Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize is a $7 million dollar global competition to develop new autonomous technologies for exploring and mapping the ocean floor. On March 7, Xprize officials announced the nine finalists for the final phase of the three-year competition.
MIT's team isn't part of the Xprize competition, but it's good news for anyone invested in underwater robot research, said Jyotika Virmani, project lead and senior director with the company's Energy and Environment Group.
“I think it's brilliant,” Virmani told Seeker. “I had heard that they were working on this, and it's a great idea to develop a robot that doesn't alarm the wildlife. This makes it easier for us to get close to them, and interact with them.”
Virmani said she suspects the MIT robofish will have some company in coming years.
“We're in a moment in our human history where we can develop these fantastic underwater robots that will allow us to explore the ocean environment in ways that we haven't been able to before,” she said.