Scientists at the University of Bristol have unveiled a groundbreaking creation that could transform the world of underwater exploration. Their coil-powered robot fish, equipped with a twisted and coiled polymer (TCP) propulsion system, promises to make underwater expeditions more accessible and efficient.
The TCP robot fish technology relies on temperature changes to generate movement, offering a lightweight and cost-effective solution. Acting like muscles, the TCP contracts when heated, converting thermal energy into mechanical motion. In this innovation, the TCP is warmed through Joule heating, where the passage of electrical current generates thermal energy. By minimizing the distance between the TCP and the spring, the robot fish's rear fin is activated, propelling it forward at impressive speeds. The undulating flapping of the fin was measured at a frequency of 2Hz, showcasing the seamless synchronization of electric current and tail movement.
The remarkable findings, published at the 6th IEEE-RAS International Conference on Soft Robotics (RoboSoft 2023), highlight a new pathway to increase the actuation frequency of TCPs through thermomechanical design. This breakthrough opens up the possibility of employing TCPs at high frequencies in aquatic environments, fostering innovation in underwater technology.
Tsam Lung You, the lead author from Bristol's Department of Engineering Mathematics, expressed enthusiasm for the TCP actuator, emphasizing its attractive features such as lightweight construction, low cost, high energy density, and simple fabrication process. Utilizing readily available materials, such as fishing line, TCPs provide linear actuation when heated. However, the relaxation phase necessary for heat dissipation has limited their speed.
By optimizing the structural design of the TCP-spring antagonistic muscle pair and reducing the distance between their anchor points, the researchers enabled the posterior fin to swing at a larger angle using the same amount of TCP actuation. Although this required greater force, the robust TCP actuator, with its high work energy density, effectively drove the fin.
Traditionally, TCPs have found applications in wearable devices and robotic hands. However, this groundbreaking work extends the potential use of TCP technology, particularly in marine robots for underwater exploration and monitoring.
Tsam Lung You expressed excitement over their achievements, stating that their robotic fish achieved the fastest actuation frequency ever recorded in a real TCP application. Furthermore, it demonstrated the highest locomotion speed for a TCP application to date. These remarkable milestones open up new avenues for TCP utilization in various fields.
Looking ahead, the team plans to scale up their efforts by developing a knifefish-inspired TCP-driven ribbon fin robot capable of agile swimming in water. The prospects for further advancements in underwater robotics have never been more promising, thanks to this remarkable coil-powered robot fish.
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