Robots Inspired By Water Creatures: Photos

Take a surreal dip with these aquatic robots.

Water, mechanical components and electronics don't mix easily, but that never stopped roboticists from plunging in deep. Meet the animal-inspired aquatic bots that are making waves.


One day a powerful robotic octopus with soft, grasping arms could pull you out of treacherous waters and save your life. An interdisciplinary European project to engineer a full-body octopus robot has produced a functional prototype. Led by Cecilia Laschi from the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, a working version with silicone arms and artificial muscles was displayed at the London Science Museum last fall.


Swiss bio-roboticists trying to understand how to improve vertebrae movement first made a robotic salamander prototype in 2007. Last spring Auke Ijspeert and his Biorobotics Laboratory colleagues at EPFL in Switzerland demonstrated the next-gen version, called Salamandra robotica II. This little guy sports a neural network modeled on a real one and can crawl, walk and swim much faster than the first. It moves when scientists trigger electrical signals connected to distributed microcontrollers. In an outdoor demo, the robotic salamander went from the shore to the water and swam with swans.


A team of mechanical engineers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is testing the waters with a robotic turtle created for autonomous underwater navigation. The 3.3-foot-long robotic sea turtle called Naro-Tartaruga weighs 165 pounds and can swim fairly quickly, too. In November, the team took the prototype for its first swim tests in a pool. The robot's actuated fin system helped it move naturally underwater. For a brief moment, one of the scientists even rode the bot.


Engineers at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering started small last year, creating a robotic jellyfish dubbed RoboJelly that you could hold in your hands. Then in March they went big with a 5-foot-7 silicone-covered prototype called Cyro that weighs 170 pounds. The battery-powered robot development, led by professor Shashank Priya, is part of a larger U.S. Navy-funded project. Jellyfish naturally thrive in all kinds of different environments and use little energy to move so an autonomous robotic one could monitor and explore oceans continuously.


Is that a frog in your stomach? University of Leeds engineers looked to tree frogs' gripping feet as inspiration for a robotic camera that could safely move around slippery internal tissues during abdominal surgery. Engineering professor Anne Neville headed the research, noting that tree frogs have channels on their feet so they can build capillary bridges on wet surfaces. Her group's frog-like robot has four feet and can currently hold half an ounce. The team plans to scale down the prototype to keyhole surgery size.


Engineers from the National University of Singapore used real carp as their inspiration to design two fish-like autonomous underwater vehicles that could detect pipeline leaks and help lay communication cable. Both have flexible fins and internal ballast systems. One is nearly five feet long and can dive down suddenly. The other is smaller, more agile and swims near the surface. Robotic fish are also being eyed for military uses. The Department of Homeland Security is funding a robotic tuna development called the BIOSwimmer that could look for suspicious activities around marine vessels.


When human scientists set out to tail sharks in the water, it makes sense to do it like a shark: silently and autonomously with specialized signaling. This summer engineering professor Christopher Clark from Harvey Mudd College and California State University Long Beach biologist Chris Lowe are deploying a pair of autonomous underwater vehicles to follow sharks off the California coast. The sensor-laden robots can continuously monitor tagged sharks and communicate to circle a particular shark at the same subtle distance. While lurking underwater they'll gather data on shark hotspots.

Manta Ray

Batoid rays are known for moving quickly, efficiently and gracefully through the water -- beneficial characteristics for an autonomous underwater vehicle. A team of interdisciplinary researchers from the University of Virginia, UCLA, West Chester University and Princeton engineered a version based on the manta ray last year. Their bio-inspired Mantabot contains expanding and contracting mechanisms inside silicone wings that are operated via remote control, allowing it to move just like a real one.


When the world's first amphibious robotic snake became declassified, Discovery aired freaky video of it in 2010. The robosnake demonstrated impressive speed, both in hallways and the pool. It also sported a brightly lit "eye" containing a camera. Instead of preying on unsuspecting civilians, the robot was created for applications such as locating victims following an earthquake and performing minimally invasive surgery. On a more practical level, technologists at the Fortune Institute of Technology in Taiwan designed a robotic snake called BioCleaner2 that contains special bacteria to clean toxic metals from water as it moves.