Humans excel at creating high-speed, low-maneuverability technologies, like airplanes and cars, MacIver said. But studying animals provides a platform for creating low-speed, high-maneuverability technologies—technologies that don’t currently exist. Potential applications for such a robot include underwater recovery operations, such as plugging a leaking oil pipe, or long-term monitoring of oceanic environments, such as fragile coral reefs.
While the applied work on the robot moves ahead in the lab, the group is pursuing basic science questions as well. “The robot is a tool for uncovering the extremely complicated story of how to coordinate movement in animals,” MacIver said. “By simulating and then performing the motions of the fish, we’re getting insight into the mechanical basis of the remarkable agility of a very acrobatic, non-visual fish. The next step is to take the sensory work and unite the two.”