Speedy tuna capable of swimming tirelessly in the Earth's oceans have inspired the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fund a lookalike robot for underwater patrols.
The "BIOSwimmer" robot features faithfully replicated fins and a flexible tail to pull off quick maneuvers like the real-life fish. Homeland Security made the choice to fund the robot made by the Boston Engineering Corporation in Waltham, Mass., with an eye toward missions such as exploring the flooded areas of ships, inspecting oil tankers or patrolling U.S. harbors to watch out for suspicious activity.
"It's called 'biomimetics,'" said David Taylor, program manager for the BIOSwimmer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "We're using nature as a basis for design and engineering a system that works exceedingly well."
The robot, which is based on the tuna's sleek, flexible shape, would be able to squeeze into tight spaces such as the flooded bilges and tanks of ship interiors — not to mention fit in well with surrounding marine life. Humans can control BIOSwimmer's activities through a laptop, but the unmanned underwater vehicle also carries its own computer for navigation, processing sensor data and communications with the home base.
BIOSwimmer represents just one of the new generation of robots that take their design inspiration from nature. Animals such as flying cockroaches to slithering snakes have given rise to robotic imitators that try to harness nature's lessons for moving around during natural disasters or on battlefields.
Marine animals beyond tuna have much to teach human engineers. Even squirmy starfish, worms and octopuses have inspired squishy, color-changing robots capable of both camouflage and squeezing into tight spaces.