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RoboRoach

Swim Like a Fish

Body Builders

Robots Have Feelings, Too

Go, Team!

Viewer Challenge

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TEACHING GUIDES


Natural Born Robots:
"Swim Like a Fish"


Champion swimmers like the ocean-going bluefin tuna are faster and far more efficient than conventional submarines. Robotics engineers hope to imitate nature's design and build a better underwater vehicle. They'll also learn what makes fish such great swimmers. Join host Alan Alda in the MIT Towing Tank to swim with RoboTuna. And meet the robotic pike of the future.

Curriculum Links
National Science Education Standards
Activity 1: The Physics of Swimming
Activity 2: Convergent Evolution
Activity 3: Vortices in Action
Think About It!




CURRICULUM LINKS


BIOLOGY/
LIFE SCIENCE


fish

COMPUTER SCIENCE

AI, programming

PHYSICAL SCIENCE

acceleration, biomechanics, drag, fluid dynamics, vortices

TECHNOLOGY


robotics

(Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for related Frontiers shows and activities!)




NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS

SCIENCE AS INQUIRY / LIFE SCIENCE
5-8: Transfer of Energy
9-12: Interactions of Energy and Matter
LIFE SCIENCE
5-8: Structure and Function in Living Systems; Regulation and Behavior; Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
9-12: Molecular Basis of Heredity; Biological Evolution; Behavior of Organisms
SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
5-8, 9-12: Abilities of Technological Design; Understandings About Science and Technology
SCIENCE IN PERSONAL & SOCIAL PERSPECTIVES
5-8: Science and Technology in Society
9-12: Science and Technology in Local, National and Global Challenges
HISTORY & NATURE OF SCIENCE
5-8, 9-12: Science as a Human Endeavor




ACTIVITY 1: THE PHYSICS OF SWIMMING

Inspired by biology, robot makers are designing and building robots modeled after many different animals along the evolutionary family tree, including humans. You'll meet several of these robotic creatures in this episode of Frontiers.

Although some robots are humanoid in form and function, others -- like the robotic tuna and pike seen in this story -- are modeled on other life forms. Eels, lobsters, penguins, dolphins and other marine animals and mammals are being used as models for robots.

RoboTuna is designed to mimic the shape and motion of a bluefin tuna, a champion swimmer that has had 160 million years to adapt. The RoboTuna project originally began with the goal of developing a better propulsion system for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

robo tuna


The biological form of the tuna, above, was the basis for the RoboTuna's design.

Part 1: Observing the Insect
  • Why build a robot like a fish? Watch this episode of Frontiers to find out, then compare a tuna's swimming ability with that of other large, ocean-going fish like shark. Compare the anatomical structure of various fish, their sizes and swimming speeds. Then compare the bluefin tuna's anatomy and swimming skills with those of marine animals (dolphins, killer whales, manatees, penguins).

  • Compare the anatomy of a bluefin tuna or other large fish or marine mammal with that of a champion human swimmer. What is the fastest speed ever achieved by a human swimmer? Compare with the speed of a bluefin tuna. What makes the bluefin tuna, the model for the MIT RoboTuna, a champion swimmer? Consider acceleration speeds, turning ability, anatomical design, hydrodynamic drag.

  • Choose a fish or marine mammal you would like to use as a model for a robot design. Explain why. Draw your robot design. What would you have to know before building it?

  • A RoboTuna might one day be sent on a mission to detect underwater mines. What might be some other applications of this new generation of robo-creatures?





ACTIVITY 2: CONVERGENT EVOLUTION

Compare the form and function of a tuna's flippers with human arms and penguin wings. Flippers or fins, arms and wings each function in fluids (air or water) and each class of animal has evolved a similar form. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution. Find other examples of convergent evolution in the animal kingdom and illustrate them.





ACTIVITY 3: VORTICES IN ACTION

As you see in this episode, the bluefin tuna has solved the problem of vortices and drag in the water. RoboTuna would be far more efficient than a conventional boat or submarine -- once it learns how to swim.





THINK ABOUT IT!

  • Debate the pros and cons of these issues: using marine mammals or other wildlife in-stead of robots for tasks such as underwater surveillance or mine searches; sending robots or people into outer space for interplanetary exploration.

  • Scientists studying and building fish robots like MIT's RoboTuna would like to solve "Gray's paradox," named for James Gray, a British zoologist and specialist in animal locomotion, who theorized that fish are more efficient swimmers than they should be. How does building robots modeled after fish help scientists find out more about this phenomenon?

  • Scientists at several colleges are developing a robotic lobster and lamprey for the Biomimetic Underwater Robot Program. See http://www.dac.neu.edu/msc/burp.html. What might be some applications?






 

Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.