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Robotic fish inspires museum exhibit and technology advances

NSF Award:

EFRI-BSBA: Multifunctional materials exhibiting distributed actuation, sensing, and control: Uncovering the hierarchical control of fish for developing smarter materials  (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University)

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Fish are masters of their environment, using powerful and complex muscles to maneuver in tight places, quickly accelerate or brake. They also have tiny, sensitive hairs that detect the smallest of changes in the water flowing around them, allowing them to detect and track prey and engage in complicated, synchronized swimming behavior. Even with a fairly extensive understanding of certain aspects of fish physiology, researchers know little about the unique neuromuscular network fish possess.

Now, a research team at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) hopes to expand understanding of fish locomotion with a robot that mimics swimming behavior. Using bio-derived materials, nanotechnology and advanced composites, the team is recreating the hair sensors and complex musculature that allow fish to move powerfully and responsively through the water. Ultimately, the researchers hope to develop a self-controlled underwater vehicle that mimics fish movement through the water. 

This research, led by mechanical engineer Michael Philen, has inspired a new interactive exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History that shows visitors how science and engineering (S&E) work together to make sense of the physical world. The exhibit represents an important component of the project, helping to engage the nearly 33,000 school children who visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History annually in S&E research.

Progress made with the Virginia Tech research could improve the design of vehicles that travel through both water and air, and the underlying technology may ultimately contribute to better prosthetic devices and robotic assisted surgical equipment.

For more on biomimetic underwater vehicles, visit Philen's web site.


  • robotic fish research inspired an interactive exhibit at the harvard museum of natural history
Robotic fish research inspired an exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Michael Philen, Virginia Tech

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