Researchers from Sheffield University have created small underwater robots that could help in search and rescue missions.

The robotic modules, like lego, can be assembled into robots of different shapes. This means that they could fulfil many different tasks.

Each module comprises a cube with four micro pumps which allow it to move around independently in the water. Joining modules together lets them draw in fluid from one another, as well as from their surroundings. The routing of the fluid through the network of modules makes the robot move. The more modules in the network, the more precisely the robot moves and the better it copes with faults.

Matthew Doyle, a PhD student from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering who has been working on the project, said: “One potential use for a robot like this is during search and rescue operations in an underwater environment. The modules could split up and search for survivors more quickly and recombine to lift a heavy object and open up a passageway.”

Dr Roderich Gross who is leading the team, said: “One of the challenges in robotics is to make robots small enough so that they can travel through confined spaces that are otherwise inaccessible. Shrinking robots down, potentially to sub-millimetre scale, puts severe constraints on the hardware and therefore how much information these robots can process.” Another use of the robots is to travel down and inspect underground water pipes.