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How Do You Make A Robot Fish? Copy Bluefin Tuna

The Olin-Boston Engineering project expects to have a working prototype of its "RoboTuna" by the end of the year.


RoboTuna (photo: MIT)
(click for larger image)

Move over, Michael Phelps, there's a new swimming king on the starting blocks.

It's a robotic fish that borrows design from the bluefin tuna, which can reach speeds up to 50 mph. Dubbed "RoboTuna," the robot is being developed by researchers in suburban Boston at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and the Boston Engineering Corp.

"We expect to have a working prototype by the end of the year," said Olin's David Barrett in an interview Thursday. "We have some talented students working on it and we have a great swimming pool for testing." Barrett, who is professor of mechanical engineering and design at Olin, said the plan is to test the device later in a lake at Wellesley College.

The effort is funded by a $70,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Mike Rufo, Boston Engineering principal engineer, is overseeing the project.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, bluefin tuna can swim up to 50 mph, They are pelagic, migrating across broad areas of the world's oceans, from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland in the western Atlantic and from the Canary Islands to Iceland in the eastern Atlantic, as well as in other regions.

The bluefin's torpedo-shaped body is nearly circular in cross-section, making it a natural choice for engineers to study and build prototypes.

"The bluefin tuna is the fastest of fish," said a specialist at the Fisheries Service. "It's a powerful and fast swimmer with great hydrodynamics." The fish tuck their fins in when they want to accelerate.

The Olin-Boston Engineering project's robotic tuna is based on the species' biology and behavior with a spine and vertebrae that produce motion via synthetic muscles. Barrett said the robot's fins and tail produce motion and propulsion.

The U.S. Navy would like to see robotic tuna research used in future submarines. Improved battery technology could enable future tuna robots to stay at sea for long periods. Intelligence gathering -- "an eye in the sea" -- could be a mission for the robots, outfitted with cameras and sensors to gather information.

MIT has been working on robotic tuna for several years under its RoboTuna project. Barrett built a RoboTuna years ago for his doctoral thesis at MIT.

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