Assembled soft robotic fish with gray areas showing redox flow battery half cells and catholyte storage volume. Credit: James Pikul; pikul@seas.upenn.edu

Robot fish with battery-powered 'blood'

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US engineers have created a soft and squidgy robotic lionfish that has synthetic liquid 'blood' made of battery fluid coursing through it, and say it is capable of swimming upstream and fanning its fins. As robots tend to have both a battery and mechanical or hydraulic parts, the team decided to combine them to reduce the weight of the fish. Its synthetic circulatory system contains the battery fluid, which powers onboard pumps and electronics, as well as mechanically driving the robot, allowing it to swim for 36 hours between charges. The team say this concept could help improve energy storage, efficiency and autonomy in future robots.

Journal/conference: Nature

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1313-1

Organisation/s: Cornell University, USA

Funder: This work was supported by the US Office of Naval Research, grant number N00014-17-1-2837

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Robot fish powered by synthetic 'blood'

A synthetic circulatory system consisting of a hydraulic liquid that mechanically drives and electrically powers a soft robotic lionfish is demonstrated in a Nature paper this week. In tests of the system, the robot was able to swim against a current and could fan its pectoral fins. The findings could lead to improved energy storage, efficiency and autonomy in future robot designs.

Robots are typically composed of isolated systems required for specific tasks. For example, a material may function solely as the battery, but this means that scaling up the system requires additional battery packs, which increases weight, and modifications may be required to maintain the performance of the robot. One solution to this issue is to use batteries that serve multiple functions.

Robert Shepherd and colleagues identified hydraulic fluids used in robots for force transmission as also having the potential for energy storage. The authors created a synthetic vascular system, embedded in a lionfish-inspired robotic fish, made of interconnected zinc iodide flow-cell batteries that contain a liquid electrolyte. The liquid is circulated around the robot, powering the onboard pumps and electronics through electrochemical reactions. Simultaneously, the pumping of the liquid transmitted mechanical work to the fins, allowing the robot to swim. In tests, the robot was able to swim for long durations (with a maximum theoretical operating time of over 36 hours) and at a speed of more than 1.5 body lengths per minute against a current.

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    Soft robotic fish swimming - Credit: James Pikul; pikul@seas.upenn.edu
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    Soft robotic fish, tail actuation - Credit: James Pikul; pikul@seas.upenn.edu

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