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Home Robotics: Technology, News & Trends Cornell University Achieves Breakthrough in Marine Robotics Development

Cornell University Achieves Breakthrough in Marine Robotics Development

Students design robot to collect microplastics
Inspired by a small aquatic snail in nature, a team of Cornell University researchers has successfully developed a robotic prototype that is expected to be used on the surfaces of oceans, seas, and lakes to efficiently perform cleaning tasks such as collecting microplastics.

Marine microplastic eradication robots are still in the early stages of research and development and are not yet widely used in the large-scale commercial market, and most marine microplastic eradication robotics projects are still in the research and laboratory testing phase. With the growing concern over marine pollution and plastics, several innovative robotics technologies and design concepts have emerged for ocean cleaning, including the use of advanced sensor technologies, artificial intelligence, and autonomous navigation systems to accurately locate and collect microplastics. The robot form has also changed significantly, with small-sized soft-bodied robots becoming a major research direction to adapt to different marine environments. Meanwhile, for robots to work more efficiently in the sea, the adoption of efficient energy storage and the use of renewable energy technologies to reduce the dependence on external power sources is also one of the important advances in ocean cleaning robots.

Micro robot

Currently, plastic cleaning equipment in the oceans is mainly trawling or handling for collecting and removing new plastic particles from the water. However, one problem with these devices is that they cannot effectively recover microplastics, which are relatively small in size. These tiny plastic particles may be absorbed and end up in the tissues of marine organisms, thus entering the food chain. This phenomenon could pose a problem not only for biological health but also for the potential impact on human food.

Inspired by the Snail’s Unique Behavior

The team was inspired by the Hawaiian apple snail (Pomacea canaliculate), a common aquarium snail that mainly inhabits freshwater environments such as lakes, ponds, and rivers. Usually brown or gold, the Hawaiian apple snail has a flat, rounded shell with a distinctive spiral pattern, with adults having shells up to a few centimeters in diameter and a cone-shaped body. This snail generates flow through the fluctuation of its flexible legs to drive the surface of the water to inhale floating food particles. The Cornell University research team has studied this unique behavior of the snail in-depth and applied its principles to the design of an ocean-cleaning robot. The prototype robot can be made of a flexible sheet fabricated using 3D printing technology with a spiral structure similar to a snail’s foot, a flexible structure that allows the robot to adapt to the irregular shape of the water’s surface and traverse a variety of environments more easily, including areas where microplastics congregate. The research team’s design was inspired in part by the underwater snail’s ability to generate flow through fluctuations on its flexible feet26, 27, which generate traveling waves on the fluctuators. Although moving boundaries are a conventional strategy used to drive flow near liquid-gas interfaces in confined spaces, the motion of the undulator showed unexpected results: pumping was not proportional to wave speed, and we observed a non-monotonic variation in the mean motion of the surface floats as the wave speed increased.

Wires a component

Through detailed measurements of the velocity field and analysis in conjunction with lubrication theory, the team discovered the role of coupling problems between capillary, gravitational, and viscous forces in the fluid dynamics of the interface, where the non-monotonic flow is directly dependent on whether or not the interface stays flat or in phase with the wave oscillator. Through theoretical analysis and calculation, the team successfully predicted the optimal wave speed to maximize the pumping effect, and the prediction is highly consistent with the experimental results.

Trends in Ocean Robotics

Despite the theoretical simulation of apple snails as a solution to cleaning microplastics in the ocean, there are still certain technological limitations to robots operating in the ocean. One of the larger issues at hand is the availability of energy. Due to the long hours of operation in the ocean environment, marine robots usually rely on batteries as their main source of energy. Short battery life and low capacity may result in robots being unable to complete long-duration tasks and needing to be recharged or replaced frequently, increasing maintenance costs and operational complexity. It is difficult for robots in the ocean to obtain direct access to power sources, so effective energy charging or replenishment systems need to be designed. At the same time, marine robots are usually equipped with a variety of sensors and communication equipment, how to cross the barrier of the water medium, and the operators on land to achieve real-time effective communication links so that the robot is better controlled, but also underwater robots need to urgently solve the problem.
Overall, however, the snail-inspired prototype represents a new attempt by scientists to address global environmental issues, with morphology and motion principles being the easiest aspects of underwater robotics to improve. In the future, it will still take the dedication of teams in more fields to make ocean-cleaning robots commercially viable.

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