Underwater Robotics: How to Become the World’s Fastest Swimmer

August 3, 2012 - via Wall Street Journal Japan

A team of Japanese researchers developed a robot that may one day help answer the question on the minds of aspiring Olympic swimmers: How can I be the next Michael Phelps?

Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have built what they say is the first humanoid robot that can swim underwater using all four limbs. The robot’s mission: to figure out the most efficient way to swim with the least amount of drag — or as the researchers’ paper puts it “address the problems inherent in human swimming.”

Dubbed “Swumanoid,” the 12-pound, 3-foot tall robot is the half-scale version of a former Japanese Olympic swimmer. The researchers measured the Olympian’s body using a 3D scanner. Twenty computer-controlled waterproof motors give Swumanoid the gift of movement, said Motomu Nakashima, an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who specializes in sports engineering, in an interview with JRT on Friday. Mr. Nakashima and his team will present their preliminary research at a conference in Taiwan in late August.

They will study how slight changes in the humanoid’s body motion — like pulling its arm straight through the water or making a zig-zag pattern during the freestyle — would impact its speed by measuring water resistance and force on the swimmer’s body.

Similar research has been done using humans in the past, but the trouble with humans is that they get tired. Swumanoid, on the other hand, can swim for miles without fear of exhaustion, said Mr. Nakashima. He is also constant. His movements are the exact same each time unless the researchers direct him otherwise. In other words, he’s a better candidate for long-term research.

Mr. Nakashima said the robot could also eventually be used in rescue operations.

The first Swumanoid specializes in freestyle — the most complex and basic of the strokes, said Mr. Nakashima. He can also do the backstroke and butterfly, but breaststroke is not on the menu yet.

The biggest trouble with building Swumanoid was to make him waterproof and get the joints to move with the same force and flexibility as an actual swimmer. The shoulders in particular were difficult because its range is far greater than what has been developed for other humanoid robots up till now like Honda Motor Co.’s Asimo that can serve drinks but would crackle underwater.

Swumanoid 2.0, expected to be finished sometime next year, will become even more fluid in its movements and fewer water leaking issues.

The robots won’t be taking over the Olympic pools any time yet. Watching Swumanoid swim now is like the London Games in slow motion. The prototype’s swim speed is 0.64 meters per second – which is roughly three times slower than the current world record pace for the 100-meter freestyle. But they will get faster. The Japanese researcher said it could go at least twice as fast in the future.

And in the long run, Mr. Nakashima said it would be possible to tailor-make Swumanoid copycats of Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte should they wish to see how their personal physical distinctions and abilities fare when given a robotic edge.

External link: http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2012/08/03/underwater-robotics-how-to-become-the-worlds-fastest-swimmer

Author:Yoree Koh

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