In an effort to create more autonomous, life-like robots, scientists have developed a soft robotic lionfish with a multi-functional circulatory system. A blood-like compound powers the bot and provides propulsion.
The synthetic blood allows the robot to store 325 percent more energy than if it was carrying a separate battery pack, according to Nature News, enough juice to lazily paddle through the water for an impressive 37 hours. While the fish can’t swim very fast or far, its life-giving bloodstream is an impressive example of how mimicking biological organisms could help a new generation of robots become more autonomous and efficient than ever before.
To cut down on the weight issues involved with having fluid flowing around against gravity, the researchers decided to make a swimming robot, modeled on a fish. But not just any fish—a lionfish, which has elaborate dorsal and pectoral fins and can perform displays using them.
James Pikul, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, said his team came up with the idea while trying to find new ways of making robots more independent.
“We realized that the operation time of most robots is very short before they have to recharge, on the order of tens of minutes, yet humans can operate for days without eating,” Pikul told Gizmodo in an email. “We wanted to solve this problem by finding ways to store energy in all the components of a robot. This robot blood is our first demonstration of storing energy in a fluid that is normally only used for actuation.”
This is a first attempt, and the authors identified several problems with their design. For example, the capacity of the battery starts fading after just 10 cycles, in part because some of the battery solution starts being absorbed by the silicon body of the fish.
Nothing quite like this ever been done before. It’s the first experiment to combine hydraulic force transmission, actuation, and energy storage into a single, multifunctional system in a robot, according to the team.
This fascinating new experiment is yet another sign of how robots are becoming increasingly animal-like in both form and function. Once clunky, stiff, and simple, robots are now becoming agile, soft, and sophisticated. Eventually, it’ll be hard to tell the difference between robots and animals. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.