Researchers at Northwestern University have created a robotic fish that can move from swimming forward and backward to swimming vertically almost instantaneously by using a sophisticated, ribbon-like fin.

The robot, created after observing and creating computer simulations of the black ghost knifefish, could pave the way for nimble robots that could perform underwater recovery operations or long-term monitoring of coral reefs.

The black ghost knifefish, which works at night in rivers of the Amazon basin, hunts for prey using a weak electric field around its entire body and moves both forward and backward using a ribbon-like fin on the underside of its body.

The robot is fitted with a electrosensory system that works in a similar way to the knifefish’s, and the team hope to next improve the robot so it can autonomously use its sensor signals to detect an object and then use its mechanical system to position itself near the object.

Potential applications for such a low-speed, highly maneouverable robot include underwater recovery operations, such as plugging a leaking oil pipe, or long-term monitoring of oceanic environments, such as coral reefs.

Further Reading: Northwestern University