Researchers at the University of Bristol have taken inspiration from zooplankton in their development of underwater robots designed to operate in extreme environments, including extra-terrestrial oceans.
Named RoboSalps, the bots have light, tubular bodies which replicate those of salps, a planktic tunicate that moves by pumping water through its body.
RoboSalps can connect to one another to form ‘colonies’, which allows them to perform new functions that can only be achieved through collaboration.
Valentina Lo Gatto, a researcher at Bristol’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, is leading the study; she is also a student at the EPSRC Centre of Doctoral Training in Future Autonomous and Robotic Systems (FARSCOPE CDT).
Lo Gatto said: “RoboSalp is the first modular salp-inspired robot.
“Each module is made of a very light-weight soft tubular structure and a drone propeller which enables them to swim.
“These simple modules can be combined into ‘colonies’ that are much more robust and have the potential to carry out complex tasks.
“Because of their low weight and their robustness, they are ideal for extra-terrestrial underwater exploration missions, for example, in the subsurface ocean on the Jupiter moon Europa.”
Each RoboSalp can swim on its own, thanks to a small motor with rotor blades inserted into the soft tubular structure of its body. The bots are more easily controlled when swimming in colony formation and are capable of more fluid and sophisticated movements.
What’s more, by joining multiple bots together, scientists can automatically achieve a redundant system, meaning the RoboScalps are more robust against failure and, if one module breaks, the whole colony can continue to swim.
According to the researchers, a colony of soft robots is well-suited to missions where direct human control might not be feasible.
Those behind the bots explained that a compliant body provides safer interaction with fragile ecosystems, reducing the risk of environmental damage.
The researchers have suggested that, at some point, the colony could split into multiple segments, each exploring in a different direction, and afterwards reassemble to achieve a new objective, such as manipulation or sample collection.