The University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science is trying to emulate the seemingly effortless but powerful swimming motions of rays by engineering their own ray-like machine modeled on nature.
They are designing an “autonomous underwater vehicle” that someday may surpass what nature has provided as a model. The vehicle has potential commercial and military applications, and could be used for undersea exploration and scientific research.
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.
“Biology has solved the problem of locomotion with these animals, so we have to understand the mechanisms if we are going to not only copy how the animal swims, but possibly even to improve upon it,”associate professor Hillary Bart-Smith said.
The mechanical ray is remotely controlled by researchers via computer commands. The plastic body of the vehicle contains electronics and a battery, while the flexible silicone wings contain rods and cables that expand and retract and change shape to facilitate what is essentially underwater flight.
Bart-Smith’s ultimate goal is to engineer a vehicle that would operate autonomously, and could be deployed for long periods of time to collect undersea data for scientists, or as a surveillance tool for the military. It also could be scaled up, or down, to serve as a platform carrying various payloads, such as environmental monitoring instruments. For example, it possibly could be used for pollution monitoring, such as tracking the locations of underwater oil spills.