Robot octopus capable of ultra-fast speeds

0307OCTOPUS

Graphic created by Berkeley Lovelace Jr.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our Science for Kids series, aimed at children in grades 4-8.

Watch out! The sea critters of the deep could be welcoming a new creature into the family. It’s a robot that looks and acts like an octopus.

Octopuses, and other creatures like cuttlefish and squids, are able to move quickly by filling up their bodies with water and shooting it out.  Engineers at the University of Southampton were inspired to create a creature-like robot that could do the same thing. After the robot fills its body with water, it shoots the water out and travels at high speeds, sometimes faster than a plane. That’s really fast!

The robot is made out of a hard plastic skeleton and a stretchy plastic cover. The plastic skeleton gives the robot its octopus-like shape, while the plastic allows the robot to fill up like a balloon. The robot even has tentacles! But not maybe how you’d imagine. The tentacles, or sea legs, are actually four flat pieces of plastic at the end of the robot that help with movement in the water.

Dr. Gabriel Weymouth, an engineer at the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute at the University of Southampton, was one engineer who helped lead the study and creation of the robot.

Weymouth said most people would think that octopuses have the wrong body shape to travel at high speeds. He thinks differently. Weymouth said he’s always been interested in how sea animals like the octopus are able to travel under water so quickly.

“We have torpedoes and such, and they have thousands of different moving parts to them,” Weymouth said. “But an octopus is so simple. We wanted to do something we didn’t know how to do.”

Weymouth and his team have succeeded where others have failed. Another robotics team in Italy had tried to build a robot similar to the one Weymouth and his team built, but they were unsuccessful, according to The New York Times. It didn’t take Weymouth’s team too long to build the robot once they had the basic idea, he said. The team of engineers took about four months to design the robot.

“I was extremely excited just seeing it doing it,” Weymouth said. “We wanted to demonstrate how a machine could use this same function in real life.”

Weymouth says, from an engineering standpoint, an octopus’s ability to travel doesn’t make sense. Because octopuses don’t have a hard skeleton, one wouldn’t think they could travel through water so quickly.

But how could an octopus-like machine be useful for humans? There are several ideas out there, but Weymouth thinks we could use it as a faster way to travel under water.

“You could use it as an underwater vehicle,” Weymouth said.

The robot in its structure looks similar to vehicles we see today. Although the creation of an octopus-like underwater vehicle would likely take years, the possibility is there.

Weymouth said the robot isn’t perfect just yet. It still needs a fully charged battery first before it goes out in open water. Weymouth would like to see the robot produce its own power. In fact, Weymouth’s team plans to partner with the robotics team in Italy to work out this problem and get the robot fully moving.

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