Nature's Blueprint: Sea snake inspires 'swimming' Eelume inspection robot

Joseph Flaig

The sea snake's side-to-side swimming inspired the Eelume robot (Credit: Eelume AS/ composite)
The sea snake's side-to-side swimming inspired the Eelume robot (Credit: Eelume AS/ composite)

Engineers have always looked to nature for inspiration.

But today, in the age of simulation and artificial intelligence, how much more can nature teach us? 

Some call their work biomimicry, while others prefer the term bio-inspired engineering. Regardless of labels, this week we are looking at five projects and their biological inspirations, revealing how nature continues to offer engineers a guiding hand. 

The Eelume underwater inspection, maintenance and repair robot

Underwater inspection, maintenance and repair (IMR) is a tricky business. Huge sums of money are spent on such work on oil and gas installations and other energy projects, yet underwater vehicles are often limited, rigid machines with fixed capabilities and over-reliance on operators at the surface. 

Working with energy company Statoil and marine technology specialist Kongsberg Maritime, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology looked to eels and snakes for solutions. The result is the Eelume, a prototype IMR robot with several desirable characteristics. 

The machine can ‘swim’ like a snake, using lateral undulation to provide thrust. The unmanned vehicle combines this with on-board motors for faster movement, and can straighten out like a torpedo for long-distance cruising.

The robot’s eel-like flexibility is also key for its operations. Its ability to twist and turn lets it travel through previously inaccessible gaps and wrap around installations. A modular configuration lets operators place joints, thrusters, maintenance tools and more where needed – a camera towards the back, for example, provides a great viewpoint for inspection and repair work. 

The prototype was limited to 150m depth of water and it relayed video through a tethered connection, but the creators are ambitious. The ultimate aim is for fleets of autonomous robots based at subsea docks, capable of staying underwater for six months at a time.

Read part one of Nature's Blueprint, on the dragonfly-inspired Skeeter drone, here.

Read part three, on the budgie-influenced Quad-Morphing drone, here.

Read part four, on how slime mould could lead to better self-driving cars, here.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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