Undulatory Swimming Performance and Body Stiffness Modulation in a Soft Robotic Fish-Inspired Physical Model.

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Citation:
Soft Robot, 2017, 4 (3), pp. 202 - 210
Issue Date:
2017-09
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Undulatory motion of the body is the dominant mode of locomotion in fishes, and numerous studies of body kinematics and muscle activity patterns have provided insights into the mechanics of swimming. However, it has not been possible to investigate how key parameters such as the extent of bilateral muscle activation affect propulsive performance due to the inability to manipulate muscle activation in live, freely swimming fishes. In this article we extend previous work on passive flexible mechanical models of undulatory propulsion by using actively controlled pneumatic actuators attached to a flexible foil to gain insight into undulatory locomotion and mechanisms for body stiffness control. Two soft actuators were attached on each side of a flexible panel with stiffness comparable to that of a fish body. To study how bilateral contraction can be used to modify axial body stiffness during swimming, we ran a parameter sweep of actuator contraction phasing and frequency. Thrust production by the soft pneumatic actuators was tested at cyclic undulation frequencies ranging from 0.3 to 1.2 Hz in a recirculating flow tank at flow speeds up to 28 cm/s. Overall, this system generated more thrust at higher tail beat frequencies, with a plateau in thrust above 0.8 Hz. Self-propelled speed was found to be 0.8 foil lengths per second or ∼13 cm/s when actuated at 0.55 Hz. This active pneumatic model is capable of producing substantial trailing edge amplitudes with a maximum excursion equivalent to 1.4 foil lengths, and of generating considerable thrust. Altering the extent of bilateral co-contraction in a range from -22% to 17% of the cycle period showed that thrust was maximized with some amount of simultaneous left-right actuation of ∼3% to 6% of the cycle period. When the system is exposed to water flow, thrust was substantially reduced for conditions of greatest antagonistic overlap in left-right actuation, and also for the largest latencies introduced. This experimental platform provides a soft robotic testbed for studying aquatic propulsion with active control of undulatory kinematics.
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