Final Report Summary - CFD-OCTOPROP (Computational Fluid Dynamics Aided Design of the Propulsion and Locomotion Systems of a Bioinspired Robot Octopus)
The CFD-OctoProp project succeeded in realizing the first soft-bodied unmanned underwater vehicle ever built propelled by pulsed-jetting. The robot is made for as much as 90% of its volume of rubber-like materials and propels itself in water by contracting an elastic shell and expelling finite slugs of fluid across a nozzle, in a very resemblant way to that of cephalopods. This allows the robot to benefit of all the assets provided by cephalopod-inspired propulsion, that is the combination of the jet expelled and the phenomena dependent on shape variation. Differently from a standard propeller, in which thrust is generated in a continuous fashion and is therefore impractical for operation at low speed, the kind of propulsion strategy employed by the soft robots benefits from the discontinuous nature of the pulsations. This endows the vehicle with the capability to abruptly accelerate or decelerate, thus providing enhanced maneuverability for precise control and operations in cramped environments.
Because of the highly unconventional actuation mechanism and design of the vehicle, significant effort had to be put in the development of suitable mathematical models which could explore and predict the many relevant parameters and phenomena entailed with its complex dynamics. Three models with different scopes were coded; these entailed: a model for predicting the performance of the robot in terms of the mechanical parameters, a model for estimating hydrodynamic coefficients in order to develop the control of the vehicle and a model for addressing the flow parameters and structural characteristic under strain of the elastomeric material during the vehicle displacement in water. During the CFD-OctoProp project, these models were progressively refined and extensively exploited in the process of optimization of the mechanical design of the pulsed-jet thruster by investigating the non-linear effects arising from the actuation mechanism and the elastic nature of the vehicle. This eventually culminated in the definition of a revised design of the original prototype which benefited form augmented thrust production capability and a superior degree of structural flexibility. This innovative soft-bodied unmanned underwater vehicle, patented and presented at several international conferences in robotics and ocean engineering, is capable of propelling itself in water via impulsive bursts of acceleration and, being almost entirely made of elastic materials, it is unaffected by impacts. Because these features naturally lend themselves to overcoming challenging tasks which require navigation in confined spaces such as offshore infrastructure inspection and archaeological exploration, this new vehicle is a possible candidate for employment in forbidding or sensitive offshore environments for which traditional robotics or human divers are unsuitable.
This newly-patented underwater vehicle lends itself to be exploited both as a stand-alone robot with agile maneuvering skills as well as a thrusting unit inside a larger robotic platform. The chance to design a whole new underwater vehicle which incorporated the soft-bodied pulsed-jet thruster, a crawling unit and soft manipulators in a single, self-contained, soft robotic platform was eventually addressed. By capitalizing on the results from the prototypes and models of the CFD-OctoProp project and those from the OCTOPUS Integrating project (http://www.octopusproject.eu/) a completely innovative soft-bodied underwater vehicle with swimming, crawling and manipulation capabilities was designed, manufactured and successfully tested both in the laboratory and in the open sea. This is the first soft-bodied underwater robot ever built which exploits unconventional mode of waterborne propulsion as well as innovative legged-locomotion skills and infinite degrees of freedom continuum manipulators. This new prototype will benefit from unprecedented skills thanks to which it will perform agile navigation in submerged environments forbidden to standard underwater robots; it will be capable of crawling over the irregular sea bottom and stick on to those submerged structures upon which inspection and maintenance has to be carried out by exploiting the compliance of its soft manipulators. This mode of operation according to which the working procedure will take place by direct contact with the submerged structures can potentially provide solutions to some of the most challenging problems encountered, for instance, during construction or inspection operations of marine renewable energy plants (e.g. tidal turbines, wave-energy converters, floating and fixed offshore wind turbines) where even infrastructure maintenance operations must contend with strong ocean currents and high wave energy.
These results have earned such a positive reputation that the BioRobotics Institute was awarded a 200k euro foundation grant form a regional enterprise for further developing the design of the soft-bodied underwater vehicle. This new research project, named PoseiDRONE (http://sssa.bioroboticsinstitute.it/projects/PoseiDRONE) is already benefiting from widespread local and international media attention and is largely capitalizing on the research outcomes from the CFD-OctoProp.
The research outcomes of the CFD-OctoProp project are extremely timely in that they closely follow the trend of research of soft robotics, a new niche in robotics which is quickly earning a vast consensus in the worldwide robotics community for its disruptive impact over existing robotics technology. The positive reputation acquired by soft robotics is confirmed not only by the growing number of publications featuring “soft robotics” as one of the key word, but also by the establishment, at a EU level, of the dedicated Class Action RoboSoft (http://www.robosoftca.eu/) the creation of a new specialized IEEE Robotics and Automation Society Technical Committee (http://www.ieee-ras.org/soft-robotics) the organization of a new focused international yearly meeting (http://www.softrobot2013.ethz.ch/) and the publication of a new dedicated research journal (http://www.liebertpub.com/overview/soft-robotics/616/).
A dedicated website for the CFD-OctoProp project is found at the address http://sssa.bioroboticsinstitute.it/projects/CFD-OctoProp and gets updated on a regular basis.