Soft Robots in the Mariana Trench

The Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, is known for its crushing pressure: 1,000 times the pressure we experience on land. That’s enough to completely dissolve bones.

The Mariana Trench is seven miles deep, 180 million years old, and absolutely dark. Only a handful of human beings have ever been there, and it’s probably an ideal place for robots to take on any tasks that need to be done.

Generally speaking, a robot intended to explore the deepest depths of the sea would have to have an extremely strong outer shell to avoid being squished. New soft robots, however are like the snailfish which survives the punishing pressure by being squishable. Since its bones are actually cartilage and its skull is composed of moveable separate pieces, it can survive that pressure.

Just so, the soft robots have their electronic parts separated and embedded in silicone. This makes them better able to withstand the pressure.

The robots look something like a stingray, and they use the same methods fish do to move around. After being tested in a pressurized tank in a laboratory, in a natural lake, and then in the South China Sea, the robots were tested in the Mariana Trench itself.

How’d they do?

The robots didn’t swim freely at the bottom of the ocean. They were held onto by a conventional robot so they didn’t get carried away.

At this point, they swim much more slowly than other underwater robots, and they don’t have the strength to resist currents.

But they could be a starting point for future soft robots that might be able to observe life in the briny deep or to collect samples without damaging them.

Proof of concept

Like so many new robots, these robots can’t do anything very useful yet. If you count on robots to do useful things in your facility, you probably have at least some Rexroth motion control systems around.

Rexroth machinery gets things done, and keeps at it for many years. That probably means that you don’t have an experienced engineer to troubleshoot yours.

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