Video: Soft robot withstands ocean depths

A team of engineers have announced that their deep-sea exploration vessel can operate at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

The deep sea is famously difficult to explore, because it’s hard to make vessels strong enough to withstand the high pressure on the ocean floor. This research proposes a different tactic, with a soft and flexible robot that distributes force evenly along its body.

The team, which is based in Zhejiang University in China, modelled their robot on the shape of a deep-sea snailfish: Pseudoliparis swirei. The snailfish lives below depths of 6,000 metres in the Mariana Trench, and its organs are distributed widely across the body to avoid excess stress.

The researchers mirrored this by keeping the electronic components separate from each other in a flexible silicone casing. The robot’s fins were also made from thin silicone, allowing it to move through the water with a flapping motion.

The robot could move freely through the water at a depth of 3,244m, in the South China Sea. It could also operate at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 10,900m.

The research is published in Nature. An accompanying editorial suggests that with more refinement, robots like this could become useful for deep sea exploration, monitoring ocean health and cleaning up pollution.

“There is, however, more work to do before the ocean can be populated with robots of this type of design,” say the editorial writers. The robot is still slower than other deep-sea devices, and vulnerable to strong ocean currents. But, according to the editorial, the researchers’ approach “lays  the  foundations  for  future  generations of resilient and reliable deep-sea explorers”.

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