Flexible PCBs Make The Fins Of This Robotic Fish

We love a little outside-the-box thinking around here, and anytime we see robots that don’t use wheels and motors to do the moving, we take notice. So when a project touting robotic fish using soft-actuator fins crossed the tip line, we had to take a look.

It turns out that this robofish comes from the fertile mind of [Carl Bugeja], whose PCB motors and flexible actuators have been covered here before. The basic concept of these fish fins is derived from the latter project, which uses coils printed onto both sides of a flexible Kapton substrate. Positioned near a magnet, the actuators bend when a current runs through them. The video below shows two prototype robofish, each with four fins. The first is a scrap of foam with a magnet embedded; the fins did flap but the whole thing just weighed too much. Version two was much lighter and almost worked, but the tether to the driver is just too stiff to allow it to really flex its fins.

It looks like it has promise though, and we’re excited to see where [Carl] take this. Perhaps schools of tiny robofish patrolling for pollution?

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Underwater VR Offers Zero Gravity on a Budget

Someday Elon Musk might manage to pack enough of us lowly serfs into one of his super rockets that we can actually afford a ticket to space, but until then our options for experiencing weightlessness are pretty limited. Even if you’ll settle for a ride on one of the so-called “Vomit Comet” reduced-gravity planes, you’ll have to surrender a decent chunk of change, and as the name implies, potentially your lunch as well. Is there no recourse for the hacker that wants to get a taste of the astronaut experience without a NASA-sized budget?

Well, if you’re willing to get wet, [spiritplumber] might have the answer for you. Using a few 3D printed components he’s designed, it’s possible to use Google Cardboard compatible virtual reality software from the comfort of your own pool. With Cardboard providing the visuals and the water keeping you buoyant, the end result is something not entirely unlike weightlessly flying around virtual environments.

To construct his underwater VR headset, [spiritplumber] uses a number of off-the-shelf products. The main “Cardboard” headset itself is the common plastic style that you can probably find in the clearance section of whatever Big Box retailer is convenient for you, and the waterproof bag that holds the phone can be obtained cheaply online. You’ll also need a pair of swimmers goggles to keep water from rudely interrupting your wide-eyed wonderment. As for the custom printed parts, a frame keeps the waterproof bag from pressing against the screen while submerged, and a large spacer is required to get the phone at the appropriate distance from the operator’s eyes.

To put his creation to the test, [spiritplumber] loads up a VR rendition of NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where astronauts experience a near-weightless environment underwater. All that’s left to complete the experience is a DIY scuba regulator so you can stay submerged. Though at that point we wouldn’t be surprised if a passerby confuses your DIY space simulator for an elaborate suicide attempt.

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[Festo’s] Underwater Robot Uses Body-Length Fins

[Festo] have come up with yet another amazing robot, a swimming one this time with an elegant propulsion mechanism. They call it the BionicFinWave. Two fins on either side almost a body-length long create a wave which pushes water backward, making the robot move forward. It’s modeled after such fish as the cuttlefish and the Nile perch.

The BionicFinWave's fin mechanismWhat was their elegant solution for making the fins undulate? Nine lever arms are attached to each fin. Those lever arms are controlled by two crankshafts which extend from the front of the body to the rear, one for each side. A servo motor then turns each crankshaft. Since the crankshafts are independent, that means each fin operates independently. This allows for turning by having one fin move faster than the other. A third motor in the head flexes the body, causing the robot to swim up or down.

There’s also a pressure sensor and an ultrasonic sensor in the head for depth control and avoiding objects and walls. While these allow it to swim autonomously in its acrylic, tubular track, there is wireless communication for recording sensor data. Watch it in the video below as it effortlessly swims around its track.

[Festo] has created a lot of these marvels over the years. We’ve previously covered their bionic hopping kangaroo (we kid you not), their robot ants with circuitry printed on their exoskeleton, and perhaps the most realistic flapping robotic bird ever made.

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DIY Submersible Aims for Low Cost, Ease of Operation

If you’re like us, a body of water is a source of wonder and awe. The wonder comes from imagining what lies hidden below the surface, and the awe is from the fear of trying to find out and becoming one of those submerged objects on a permanent basis. So if you want to explore the depths in relative comfort and safety, a DIY remotely operated underwater vehicle might be the thing you need to build.

Most ROV builds these days seem to follow more or less similar designs, which is probably because they all share project goals similar to those of [dcolemans]: build something to take a look around under the water, make it easy to operate, and don’t spend a ton of money. To achieve that, he used 1/2″ PVC pipe and fittings to build the frame and painted it yellow for visibility. A dry tube for the electronics was fashioned from 4″ ABS pipe. The positive buoyancy provided by the dry tube is almost canceled out by the water flooding the frame through weep holes and the lead shot ballast stored in the landing skids. Propulsion is provided by bilge pump cartridges with 3D-printed ducted propellers. A nice touch is a separate topside control box with a screen for the ROV’s camera that talks to a regular RC controller, along with simplified controls and automatic station keeping. Check out the recent swimming pool test in the video below.

There’s a lot going on under the sea, and plenty of ways to explore it. You could deploy sensors shaped like clams, zap underwater lice with lasers, or even glide your way to a Hackaday Prize.

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Open Source Underwater Distributed Sensor Network

One way to design an underwater monitoring device is to take inspiration from nature and emulate an underwater creature. [Michael Barton-Sweeney] is making devices in the shape of, and functioning somewhat like, clams for his open source underwater distributed sensor network.

Underwater distributed sensor network descent and ascentThe clams contain the electronics, sensors, and means of descending and ascending within their shells. A bunch of them are dropped overboard on the surface. Their shells open, allowing the gas within to escape and they sink. As they descend they sample the water. When they reach the bottom, gas fills a bladder and they ascend back to the surface with their data where they’re collected in a net.

Thus far he’s made a few clams using acrylic for the shells which he’s blown himself. He soldered the electronics together free-form and gave them a conformal coating of epoxy. He’s also used a thermistor as a stand-in for other sensors and is already working on a saturometer, used for measuring the total dissolved gas (TDG) in the water. Knowing the TDG is useful for understanding and mitigating supersaturation of water which can lead to fish kills.

He’s also given a lot of thought into the materials used since some clams may not make it back up and would have to degrade or be benign where they rest. For example, he’s been using a lithium battery for now but would like to use copper on one shell and zinc on another to make a salt water battery, if he can make it produce enough power. He’s also considering using 3D printing since PLA is biodegradable. However, straight PLA could be subject to fouling by underwater organisms and would require cleaning, which would be time-consuming. PLA becomes soft when heated in a dishwasher and so he’s been looking into a PLA and calcium carbonate filament instead.

Check out his hackaday.io page where he talks about all these and more issues and feel free to make any suggestions.

Gentle Electric Eel

It’s no shock that electric eels get a bad rap for being scary creatures. They are slithery fleshy water snakes who can call down lightning. Biologists and engineers at the University of California had something else in mind when they designed their electric eel. Instead of hunting fish, this one swims harmlessly alongside them.

Traditional remotely operated vehicles have relied on hard shells and spinning propellers. To marine life, this is noisy and unnatural. A silent swimmer doesn’t raise any eyebrows, not that fish have eyebrows. The most innovative feature is the artificial muscles, and although the details are scarce, they seem to use a medium on the inside to conduct a charge, and on the outside, the saltwater environment conducts an opposite charge which causes a contraction in the membrane between to the inside and outside. Some swimming action can be seen below the break, and maybe one of our astute readers can shed some light on this underwater adventurer’s bill of materials.

One of our favorite submarines is the 2017 Hackaday Prize winner, The Open Source Underwater Glider. For a more artistic twist on submersibles, the Curv II is one of the most elegant we have seen.

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Underwater Logging for Science

Logging data with an Arduino is old-hat for most Hackaday readers. However, [Patricia Beddows] and [Edward Mallon] had some pretty daunting requirements. Their sensors were going underground and underwater as part of an effort to study conditions underwater and in caves. They needed to be accessible, yet rugged. They didn’t want to use batteries that would be difficult to take on airplanes, but also wanted more than a year of run time. You can buy all that, of course, if you are willing to pay the price.

Instead, they used off-the-shelf Arduino boards connected together inside PVC housings. Three alkaline AA batteries are compact and give them more than a year of run time. They wrote a journal paper to help other scientists use the same techniques for the Sensors journal published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.

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