Mankind, for all our insistence that we’re the pinnacle of intelligence, isn’t all that great at building underwater vehicles. Sure, we get the job done, but our designs rely heavily on brute force. A phallic, air-tight tube can glide through the water, but it’s going to require a ton of energy to do so and will likely makes tons of noise. Thus, when tasked with designing a better underwater machine the University of Virginia’s Hilary Bart-Smith opted to ignore man’s ideas of how things should look and instead looked for inspiration from a higher power: Specifically, Mother Nature.
As its name implies, the Mantabot is an aquatic robot based heavily on the aesthetics and functionality of a manta ray. “They are wonderful examples of optimal engineering by nature,” Bart-Smith claims.
Though Bart-Smith and her team of colleagues from three separate universities designed their ‘bot to look like a ray, the real goal is to improve on nature. “We are studying a creature to understand how it is able to swim so beautifully, and we are hoping to improve upon it,” Bart-Smith said. “We are learning from nature, but we also are innovating; trying to move beyond emulation.”
Why emulate a ray? Simple: They make almost no noise while swimming and require very little energy to move through the water. The goal is to eventually have a robot with similar abilities.
The team members, who are experts in marine biology, biomechanics, structures, hydrodynamics and control systems, have created a prototype molded directly from a real cow-nosed ray. By studying the motions of living rays in the field and the laboratory and through dissection, this prototype attempts to replicate the near-silent flaps of the wing-like pectoral fins of a ray, to swim forward, turn, accelerate, glide and maintain position.
And why would these researchers want to create a silent, low-power underwater robot? Obviously there’s military and surveillance potential in such a device, but Bart-Smith’s team also hopes that the Mantabot could be used by biologists to study undersea geography and animal populations without causing trauma to the aquatic landscape. Humans in full SCUBA gear can visit such locations, but fish are far less likely to scatter in the presence of a machine that appears to be one of them.
Now, are you ready for the weird bit? We could describe the Mantabot for another thousand words and you still wouldn’t fully understand what Bart-Smith’s team has done. Instead, we urge you to watch the official video embedded below showing the ‘bot in action. It’s equal parts graceful and eerily horrifying. It should be a complement to the Mantabot’s creators that we’d be far more comfortable with that clip had we not been informed that it was a machine beforehand. Robots just shouldn’t flap like that.