Nature really is the best inspiration when you’re a robot builder (all due respect to R2D2 and Robby the Robot). And when you’re an underwater robot builder, imitating a manta ray is truly the sincerest form of smart cribbing.
That’s what engineers at the University of Virginia hope they’ve created with their seaworthy, mechanical ray that may usher in the next generation of autonomous oceangoing robots.
Inspired by the undersea flyer, the robot ray mimics the graceful flap and glide swim style of batoid rays, a group that includes stingrays and manta rays.
Rays aren’t only cool-looking in the water (and a little spooky): They’re efficient. They use their wing-like pectoral fins to swim, maneuver, and glide soundlessly over great distances with minimal energy. Manta rays, Mantabot’s big brother namesake, can migrate up to 700 miles in just 60 days.
Plus, that smooth motion is simpatico with other sea creatures, like fish that startle easily. Just the ticket for exploring a great big ocean filled with delicate ecosystems. It would also be the perfect type of robot to carry out sensitive military surveillance. It’s no secret that this project is funded by the Office of Naval Research.
“Biology has solved the problem of locomotion with these animals, so we have to understand the mechanisms if we are going to not only copy how the animal swims, but possibly even to improve upon it,” said Hilary Bart-Smith, associate professor at the University of Virginia and team leader.