Engineers from the University of New Orleans are in the process of creating a robotic eel capable of capturing data and mimicking natural movements in the ocean. The project is being funded by the Office of Naval Research which plans to add the eel to their list of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) used for reconnaissance.
The engineers knew that creating such a complex piece of reconnaissance equipment would be no easy task. The eel needed to be a waterproof robot, move naturally and be undetectable once it was in the water. Team leader Brandon Taravella, an assistant professor at UNO, decided to use 3D printing to expedite the development process. During the course of their research the eel went through several iterations, with the engineers getting a little closer each time. They used a Stratasys Objet Eden 3D Printer each time they needed to refine their design and print new prototype parts. The build material they chose was Stratasys' transparent general-purpose (FullCure 720) material, because it was both strong and lightweight. According to Taravella, 3D printing was an integral part of the creation process of the AUV eel. "3D printers have become a standard for research institutions, if you don't have this type of capability, you will be left behind," he said.
So far, Taravella's Robo-eel project is going well. Based on the early prototypes, the Department of Defense has decided to give his team additional funding to continue development. You can watch a video discussing the creation of the eel and download a technical paper about it here.