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MIT team building robotic fin for submarines

CAMBRIDGE, Mass--Inspired by the efficient swimming motion of the bluegill sunfish, MIT researchers are building a mechanical fin that could one day propel robotic submarines.

The propeller-driven submarines, or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), currently perform a variety of functions, from mapping the ocean floor to surveying shipwrecks. But the MIT team hopes to create a more maneuverable, propeller-less underwater robot better suited for military tasks such as sweeping mines and inspecting harbors-and for that they are hoping to mimic the action of the bluegill sunfish.

If we could produce AUVs that can hover and turn and store energy and do all the things a fish does, they'll be much better than the remotely operated vehicles we have now, said James Tangorra, an MIT postdoctoral associate working on the project.

The researchers chose to copy the bluegill sunfish because of its distinctive swimming motion, which results in a constant forward thrust with no backward drag. In contrast, a human performing the breaststroke inevitably experiences drag during the recovery phase of the stroke.

Tangorra and others in the Bio-Instrumentation Systems Laboratory, led by Professor Ian Hunter of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, have broken down the fin movement of the bluegill sunfish into 19 components and analyzed which ones are critical to achieving the fish's powerful forward thrust.

We don't want to replicate exactly what nature does, said Tangorra, who will soon be joining the faculty of Drexel University. We want to figure out what parts are important for propulsion and copy those.

So far, the team has built several prototypes that successfully mimic the sunfish fin. They reported the successful testing of their most recent fin, which is made of a cutting-edge polymer that conducts electricity, in the June issue of the Bioinspiration & Biomimetics journal.

The latest fin is made of
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
30-Jul-2007


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