The Nebula: Improving Coastal Monitoring One Robotic Fish at a Time

What can our robots learn from fish to do their job better? CCS affiliate professor Patrick Musgrave, Ph.D., and his Fluids & Adaptive Structures (FASt) lab have developed a soft robotic fish with the goal of creating Bio-inspired Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (BUUVs) that can effectively operate in the coastal environment. Musgrave and his students are using the soft robotic fish (nicknamed Nebula) to identify novel actuation, sensing, and control approaches that will fundamentally improve the performance of bioinspired swimming robots.

Nebula consists of a flexible skeleton, muscle-like soft actuators or “movers” (HASELs), and a streamlined silicone body. By stimulating the actuators, the robotic fish flexes its soft body and achieves the swimming motions used by biological fish, without rigid joints or motors. 

This project is a collaboration with James Liao, Ph.D., at UF’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience to gain insight into the biomechanics of fish swimming. The Nebula currently cannot swim freely, but it does indicate a future where BUUVs can offer significant performance advantages over conventional propeller driven vehicles.

Undulatory swimmers can achieve higher maneuverability, allowing them to better navigate the underwater canyons, coral reefs, and man-made infrastructure abundant in the coastal environment; and can operate in suspended vegetation and kelp forests with minimal risk of entanglement. With these advantages, BUUVs can more effectively capture sensory data (salinity, dissolved oxygen, sea-grass growth, etc.) and will support the CCS’s mission to understand, monitor, and forecast the coastal environment.