Is SoFi the Robotic Fish Just Another Drop in the Ocean?


writer icon Paige Whitehead     Joseph Delpreto/MIT CSAIL   |   Tech     🕐 16. Apr. 2018

Researchers at MIT have developed a robotic fish that they claim will help them study fish and other oceanic life without intruding. What, if anything, does this mean for future studies and the oceans themselves?

What is SoFi?
SoFi stands for “The Soft Robotic Fish” and is a research observation tool that mimics fish-like movements underwater. While other prototypes have been tested, SoFi is the first to be able to reach a depth of 18 meters underwater with a power span of 40 minutes. Previous prototypes used propellers or similar propulsion systems and resembled machines. This tended to scare the fish away before any data could be gathered.

What makes SoFi unique is that researchers have figured out a way to use hydraulics not only to propel the device, but also to give it its fish-like tail movement. Add a soft, moveable tail fin to the end, and SoFi blends in almost perfectly with its surroundings.

This is exactly what researchers intended. Because SoFi looks and acts like a fish, it is not perceived as a threat by other fish. This enables it to get closer to marine life than ever before. Inside SoFi is a computer and camera, capturing images and relaying data back to researchers as it moves through the ocean. Currently, SoFi is operated by a diver who holds a modified gaming controller. The diver must maintain a distance of about 9 meters away.

SoFi’s mobility also enables it to weave under, over, and around various coral and oceanic life. This allows researchers to view previously hard to reach areas in a non-invasive way. Where a fish may hide in a hole or coral from a machine, it may have a different response to a fish. This could allow for longer periods of study in cramped environments.

What this Means for Research
By getting an up close, uninterrupted view of fish, scientists can better research their behaviour, swim patterns, and interactions with their habitats. Scientists can now view fish naturally, without the appearance of a machine scaring them away or causing them to exhibit atypical behaviour. This ability to study fish without intruding upon their lives is not only a benefit to the fish, but to humans as well. Scientists have long been interested in the relationship between fish and human behaviour, and SoFi could be a key factor in assisting this research.

An in depth look at fish may also increase public concern for their welfare. While few would argue that animals such as dogs or horses have feelings, the same cannot always be said of fish. Some perceive them to be emotionless, not having the capacity to grasp emotions as other animals might. Researchers suggest that one day they may be able to use SoFi to manipulate scenarios and study the fishes’ responses. Further study could provide more insight to their behaviours, emotions, perhaps even feelings. This could lead to a rise in sympathy for fish and more interest in their role as part of the ecosystem.

If SoFi’s depth could be improved, then one day SoFi may traverse the deepest part of the oceans. Researching the dark depths of the ocean is no easy task, but If SoFi can extend its range to the ocean floor then this could lead to a better understanding of what is down there.

Are Researchers Thinking of the Ocean as Well as its Inhabitants?
Although SoFi may look and act like a fish, it is still a machine. SoFi is made up of plastics, electronics, and oils. Our oceans are already suffering from an influx of plastics and other waste. While one plastic fish might not have such a large impact, the MIT article discusses potential “swarms” of robotic fish. There are also discussions to increase the distance between controller and robot, and one day being able to control the fish remotely from labs. This means swarms of fish made of unnatural materials may one day swim in our oceans, without immediate physical supervision.

Although great advances are being made in robotics, SoFi is still controlled by a human. Humans are by nature not perfect. What if SoFi were to crash into coral, or scrape its body on sharp rock? If SoFi were to break, can the diver, 9 meters away, catch all the parts and pieces in time? Is SoFi unbreakable, thus avoiding any risk of mechanical components spreading into the ocean? Can we trust that the robot will never erode or decay over time?

SoFi’s core appeal as an observation tool is its ability to appear fish-like. Have the scientists considered what might happen if another fish were to see SoFi as prey? Or, if the outer layer of SoFi was penetrated, would a fish suffer from ingesting its insides?

Make or Break
SoFi is a marvel of science and engineering. It symbolises creativity as well as a passion to gain further knowledge. SoFi may make leaps and bounds towards the study of fish and the ocean itself. This could lead to a progressive movement in the treatment of fish and their home. However, as technology expands, so must responsibility with it. Before embarking on a great scientific journey with swarms of robotic fish, researchers should make absolutely sure that they can clean up any mess along the way.

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