Sometime in the future, perhaps sometime soon, the robotic jellyfish, octopi and fish cruising the world’s oceans may have to make way for one other companion – the robotic ray. A team led by University of Virginia engineering professor Hilary Bart-Smith has created such a “creature,” in hopes that its autonomously-operated descendants may someday help us humans explore and study the sea, or possibly perform surveillance for the military.
The robot is modeled after the cow-nosed ray (it was actually molded from one’s body), which is a member of the batoid ray family. Other members of that family include the manta ray and stingray, and as the word “batoid” implies, they all swim with a flying motion. That highly-efficient form of underwater propulsion is unique in the animal kingdom, and it allows them to move very quickly with relatively little effort, while also being very agile – and virtually silent.
These are qualities that Bart-Smith and her colleagues think would make for an excellent autonomous underwater vehicle. Such a vehicle could stealthily cruise for long periods of time at high speeds, perform tight maneuvers when necessary, plus the body shape would allow for large payloads.
In its current form, the robotic ray is tethered, and is controlled remotely by a human operator providing computer commands. It has a waterproof plastic body that contains its electronic components and batteries, while its wings are made from flexible silicone. The shape and orientation of those wings are altered through the expansion and contraction of rods and cables within them, allowing the robot to accelerate, glide, turn, or maintain its position, just like a real cow-nosed ray.
Hilary’s team includes experts in marine biology, biomechanics, structures, hydrodynamics and control systems, hailing from her own university along with Princeton, UCLA and Pennsylvania’s West Chester University ... and they are not the only people to have developed a robotic ray. Mechanical tech company Festo has already created the AquaRay, a remote-control ray-like robot that swims by pumping water through “fluidic muscles” in its wings.
The U. Virginia robotic ray can be seen making its way through the water, in the video below.