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When exploring marine environments, underwater robots tend to be a bull trout in a china shop, disturbing marine life with their bulk and disruptive propulsion.

Scientists said they have created a remote-controlled robot that swims quietly through coral reefs and schools of fish and uses a fisheye lens – of course – to capture high-resolution photos and video with a camera built into its nose.

Dubbed SoFi, it can swim forward, move up and down, turn and change speeds, propelling itself by wiggling its tail side to side like a real fish, a motion created by pumping water with a small motor into two balloon-like tail chambers.

“I chose SoFi, pronounced like Sophie, as a name because it not only abbreviates the word Soft Fish, but it also reminded me of a girl I liked a lot and had a crush on in high school,” said study lead author Robert Katzschmann, a robotics researcher and PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Soft robotic fish swims alongside real ones in coral reefs

During test dives in the Rainbow Reef in Fiji, SoFi swam at depths of more than 50 feet for up to 40 minutes at once, nimbly handling currents and taking high-resolution photos and videos using (what else?) a fisheye lens.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” says CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the new journal article published today in Science Robotics.

“We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.” Katzschmann worked on the project and wrote the paper with CSAIL director Daniela Rus, graduate student Joseph DelPreto and former postdoc Robert MacCurdy, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

By changing its flow patterns, the hydraulic system enables different tail maneuvers that result in a range of swimming speeds, with an average speed of about half a body length per second.

“A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef and because it can be better accepted by the marine species.” The entire back half of the fish is made of silicone rubber and flexible plastic, and several components are 3-D-printed, including the head, which holds all of the electronics.

Katzschmann says that the team developed SoFi with the goal of being as nondisruptive as possible in its environment, from the minimal noise of the motor to the ultrasonic emissions of the team’s communications system, which sends commands using wavelengths of 30 to 36 kilohertz.

If It Looks Like a Fish and Swims Like a Fish, It Might Just Be a Robot

The scientists, who described their SoFi, or “Soft Robotic Fish,” on Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics, hope it will provide a better look at the undersea universe.

human diver with a waterproof controller directs SoFi’s speed and direction from up to 32 feet away, submerging it to depths of up to 59 feet. Its 3D-printed head houses all of its component electronic parts, including a fisheye camera that captures photo and video.

Most existing underwater robots don’t mimic underwater life, said Gaurav Sukhatme, executive vice dean of engineering at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering and an expert in underwater robotics. “They’re rigid, they’re not flexible, and they don’t blend into the environment,” he said.

Researchers are also looking to improve on swimming speed: SoFi moves at half a body length per second, but an actual fish moves at two to 10 body lengths per second.

Watch: Robot Swims Like a Real Fish Using Super Nintendo Controller

Scientists have built a fish robot that swims like a real one, potentially allowing them to get up close and personal with underwater creatures without disturbing them.

“Current robotic prototypes do not provide adequate platforms for studying marine life in their natural habitats,” the scientists wrote in their study, published in the journal Science Robotics.

“This work presents the design, fabrication, control, and oceanic testing of a soft robotic fish that can swim in three dimensions to continuously record the aquatic life it is following or engaging.” While testing the robot in action, the researchers said, they found that with its quiet motor and the ultrasonic signals coming from the remote, it could get close to fish without bothering them or scaring them away.

This Wiggly Fish Is the Most Advanced Robot of Its Kind

Now, Katzschmann and his colleagues have ruggedized SoFi and reinvented its buoyancy control system.

They also gave SoFi a remote control, letting a scuba diver drive it from up to 50 feet away.

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