Research Press Release

Robotics: Soft robot operates under pressure in the Mariana Trench


March 4, 2021

An untethered, self-powered, soft robot developed for deep-sea exploration is described in a paper published in Nature. In trials, the robot was found to operate successfully in the depths of the Mariana Trench, and could swim freely up to 3,224 metres below the surface in the South China Sea.

The deep sea remains the largest unknown territory on Earth because it is very difficult to explore. The extremely high pressures in this environment mean that mechanical systems usually require rigid vessels and pressure compensation systems in order to operate. However, deep-sea creatures — like jellyfish — lack bulky or heavy pressure-tolerant bodies yet still thrive at extreme depths.

Inspired by the structure of a deep-sea snailfish, Tiefeng Li and colleagues developed a soft robot capable of deep-sea exploration with onboard power, control and the ability to propel itself through the water. Unlike some swimming robots whose movement is dependent on stiff, bulky vessels, the electronic components of this robot are decentralized and encased in a flexible, silicone matrix. Field tests in the Mariana Trench (up to 10,900 metres in depth) and the South China Sea (up to 3,224 metres) revealed the excellent pressure resistance and swimming performance of the robot.

The authors conclude that future work will focus on developing soft, lightweight materials and structures to enhance the intelligence, versatility, manoeuvrability and efficiency of devices for use in extreme conditions.

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