Soft robot developed to explore depths of the ocean


Olivia Egan, Staff Writer

About 71.5% of the earth is covered in water, but shockingly, the ocean remains one of the places on the earth that has been explored the least. The pressure found deep under the surface creates innumerable issues for both divers and technology that make it incredibly difficult for us to explore deeper down. However, an autonomous soft robot has been created that is able to stand the harsh pressures, according to Science News. 

Described by deep-sea ecologist Mackenzie Gerringer, the pressure possessed in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, such as the Marina Trench, is, “about the equivalent of an elephant standing on your thumb.” The pressure at these depths can sometimes be more than a thousand times what it is at sea level, which requires equipment sent down to be heavily reinforced. However, these robots still have a high chance of failure as they fail to move gracefully through the water, making it more difficult to obtain information. On top of mechanical issues, there were electronic issues. The pressures at these depths cause electronic components to squeeze together and grind against each other, creating massive problems within the robot. The electronic systems present in one of these robots are extensive. The robot has to be able to perform all the required tasks at these depths, such as collecting samples or recording things around it, as well as be able to easily move through the water. With the crushing pressure, many robots are unable to work for very long. 

Urged to find a way to solve these issues and create a more functional system, scientists began to study the creatures living at these crushing depths in an attempt to find information that they could incorporate into the creation of the deep-sea robots. Enter the Deep Sea Snailfish, a translucent, spongey fish that thrives living at a depth of about eight thousand feet. The flexibility and energy efficiency present in the body of the Deep Sea Snailfish gave scientists insight into how a new form of robot could be created. One of the main things that the fish demonstrates was a lack of hardness within the skull, which was not fully fused together with hard bone. This inspired scientists to create a silicone holding for the electronics rather than a hard metal one. From there, the scientists continued with the idea of a soft body, creating fins powered by artificial batteries to flap up and down to propel the robot through the ocean. 

From there, three trials were performed. The first took place in a lake that was approximately seventy meters deep. The robot was able to swim freely and explore the environment, and when that was successful, the trial was repeated once more. This time in the South China Sea, the robot was sent thirty-two thousand meters deep and again allowed to swim freely. With two successful tests, the robot was finally sent to the bottom of the ocean. With new, unpredictable conditions, significantly more care was taken with this trial. The robot was secured to an extendable arm of a deep-sea lander and not allowed to swim freely. All three tests were successful, demonstrating the incredible potential for this new design. There were some issues, though. The robot was unable to withstand strong currents and moved extremely slowly, both of which create issues for a robot designed to explore the deepest parts of the ocean. 

However, despite these issues, this robot is a pioneer in the world of oceanic exploration. The unique materials and design pave a new way for scientists to learn more about our oceans and explore new theories that could greatly benefit our planet. One of these theories is that the microbial activity deep within our oceans has massive effects on the regulation of the planet’s climate. Information found at these depths is integral to our understanding of our planet and of life itself and will have incredible impacts on the way that we see the world around us.