The deepest regions of the ocean still remain one of the least explored areas on Earth, despite considerable scientific interest and the abundance of life that inhabits them. Two reasons for this are the low temperatures and enormous pressures exerted at such depths, which require exploration. It must be carefully protected inside a high-strength metal or ceramic chamber to withstand the equipment. This makes deep-sea probes not only bulky, expensive and unwieldy, but also difficult to design, manufacture and transport. However, new small, self-powered underwater robotic fish appear to offer an alternative. According to a recent paper, the robot was able to reach the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench, at a depth of nearly 11 km (6.8 miles).
The pressure there is over a thousand times greater than the surface of the sea. However, various animals, including fish, are able to withstand this tremendous pressure and have adapted to life under such adverse conditions. The shape and skull structure of one of these marine creatures, the Hadal snail, are said to have inspired the design of this amazing robotic swimmer.
A key innovation that made this important achievement possible was a specially designed flexible polymer body that deforms under high pressure without breakage. A team of researchers from Hangzhou, China was able to embed the delicate electronic components needed for power, movement and control in a protective silicon matrix.
This deep-sea swimmer is an example of a next-generation robot inspired by animal and plant life. They are built taking advantage of compatible materials such as silicone and other polymers, gels or fabrics. These robots can bend, yield, and adapt to the forces of their environment, making them inherently safer to work next to humans compared to typical rigid industrial robots. On the other hand, their design, operation, sensing and control can pose significant challenges at the heart of scientific and technological interest.