In the field of Biomimetics, the humble penguin has become the inspiration for an autonomous underwater vehicle.

(This article was originally published at on 24 July 2009.)

An AquaPenguin

An AquaPenguin

On land, penguins are awkward, flightless birds who waddle around with comic clumsiness. But underwater they become graceful and elegant. After 40 million years of evolution, the streamlined body and powerful wings of penguins have provided them with an energy efficient method of underwater propulsion.

The penguin’s hydrodynamic body contour allows it to achieve speeds of up to 30km/h and manoeuvre in tight spaces. Emperor penguins can dive to depths of 700m. After years of study in the Antarctic, these graceful and efficient swimmers have become the inspiration for the AquaPenguin.

The AquaPenguin, created by the Festo Bionic Learning Network, is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). Modelled on the real-life penguin’s sleek body, the AquaPenguin is just as manoeuvrable in water, although it has a top speed of only 5km/h.

But the design of the AquaPenguin gives it other benefits, including the ability to swim backwards. The spring steel wire skeletons of its wings are covered with elastic silicon sleeves and twist to the optimum angles to propel the AquaPenguin in any direction, including turning on the spot.

Its torso, although modelled on the shape of a penguin, owes its structure to the tail fin of a fish. By extending a tail fin’s movement into three dimensions, the AquaPenguin’s Fin Ray® torso can move in any direction. Contained within a dry chamber in the torso are the actuators and electronic circuitry that control the AquaPenguin’s movement. These are powered by a 12V electric motor.

The AquaPenguin is designed to be autonomous and so must make its own decisions about where and when it should move. To do this it must have an understanding of its environment and this is provided by more technology borrowed from nature. A four-beam sonar in its head utilises broadband ultrasound signals like those used by bats and dolphins.

This sonar equipment helps the AquaPenguin judge distances to, and avoid collisions with, obstacles in the water, such as the walls of a pool or other AquaPenguins. A pressure sensor can also provide it with information about depth.

As well as providing the information necessary to avoid collisions, this autonomous decision making can lead to a group of AquaPenguins interacting with one another. Patterns of collective behaviour have been observed at recent trade shows in colonies of these bionic penguins.

Although the AquaPenguins, and their cousins, the AirPenguins, are wonderful to watch (view a short video of the AquaPenguins in action), it is difficult to imagine a practical use for them. Individual components from within these AUVs, however, may have great potential. For instance, the Fin Ray® structure of the torso has been incorporated into the BionicTripod with FinGripper, a device that is able to grip delicate objects and bend in any direction. Also, lessons may be learned from the study of the collective behaviour of AquaPenguin colonies, called crowd behaviour by psychologists.

So, while penguins swim in the waters of the Antarctic, oblivious to the existence of their robotic counterparts, industry may eventually benefit from the AquaPenguin.

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