Soft Robot Explores The Deepest Of The Deep

In a landmark achievement in soft robotics, scientists have developed a silicone robot that can navigate the bone-crushing pressures of the Mariana Trench.

AsianScientist (Mar. 5, 2021) – Inspired by the creatures of ocean’s deep, scientists have developed a self-powered soft robot that can withstand the pressures of the Mariana Trench—the deepest location on Earth. Their findings were published in Nature.

While efforts to advance space exploration often grabs the headlines, one of the last unknown frontiers is much closer to home. Over 80 percent of our oceans are still unmapped and unseen by humans, largely due to the difficulties posed by the deep sea environment. To withstand the crushingly high pressures at great depths, conventional underwater vehicles are often made of thick, rigid materials with watertight enclosures.

And yet, creatures that thrive in the bottomless reaches of the ocean look markedly different. Both squid and jellyfish, for instance, are well-known for the soft bodies and pliable limbs. Influenced by these marine wonders, Professor Li Tiefeng from Zhejiang University and his collaborators designed a self-powered robot for deep-sea exploration with a soft, fish-like body and two side fins.

To protect the robot’s electronic components from high pressures, the team turned to another deep sea denizen for inspiration: the hadal snailfish (Pseudoliparis swirei). Typically, organisms like humans have hardened skulls with fused bones that would easily give way at extreme depths. However, the bones in the snailfish’s skull are spaced apart—making the fish more capable of withstanding the pressure.

Likewise, instead of packing the robot’s electronic components together, Li and his colleagues spread out the electronics within a flexible silicone matrix. When battery current is applied, the soft material of the robot’s body converts electrical energy into mechanical energy—powering the attached fins and allowing the robot to ‘swim.’

When tested in the South China Sea at a depth of about 3,200 meters, the soft robot reached a speed of 5.19 centimeters/second. Pushing the boundaries even further, the authors also tested the robot in the deepest of ocean’s deep: the Mariana Trench. Even at depths of around 10,900 meters, the robot displayed excellent swimming performance and resistance to pressure.

Though slower and much more delicate than other existing underwater robots, the new soft robot paves the way for the next generation of deep-sea explorers. With further improvement, the ocean’s watery depths will no longer be Earth’s final frontier.

The article can be found at: Li et al. (2021) Self-powered soft robot in the Mariana Trench..


Source: Nature; Photo: Li et al.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist