Both of these inventions were inspired by her evolved creations — the first, a plant’s grippy seed pod and the second, the splash-free dive of a kingfisher bird.

However, nature’s solutions aren’t just a good way to fasten your shoes and speed across Japan. Bio-inspired inventions are being taken to the next level with bio-inspired robotics. You might have already met Spot the robotic dog by Boston Dynamics. Now, a cooler (if slightly creepier) robotic animal is new in town: Eelume’s underwater snake robots.

Prof. Kristin Y. Pettersen, together with her snake robot Eelume. Photo: Sandra Skillingsås, Trondheim Tech Port

Invented at NTNU and further developed in Trondheim by the spin-out company Eelume, these robots — just like the biological original — swim through water in seemingly effortless style. But don’t worry, these snake robots won’t be lurking while you take the first spring dip in the Trondheimsfjord. Unlike the real deal, Eelume’s robots are far out on the Norwegian shelf and can swim up to 500 metres deep. They can also inspect, fix, and otherwise interact with the world around them. You might have already guessed it, but this makes them incredibly useful.

Underwater archaeologists

“Eelume’s robots are relevant for different industries with a close connection to the sea,” says Prof. Kristin Y. Pettersen, who alongside her team designed and developed the robot in her lab at NTNU. One example is the subsea energy sector, whether that’s for oil and gas or offshore wind turbines. “The robots have cameras and lights attached to them to inspect these underwater structures,” says Kristin, “but they can also plug in different tools to turn valves and tighten screws.” This enables the robots to undertake difficult jobs in dangerous conditions, with the potential to save human lives.

We decided that we want to combine the best ideas from nature and technology.
– Prof. Kristin Y. Pettersen

This example is just the most obvious use case for the robots. They will also be useful in fish farming, another of Norway’s big industries. “The robots can observe the fish and net to detect if there are holes,” says Kristin. “There is even the potential for them to fix broken nets and use environmental sensors to measure the quality of the water.” Another idea is to team the snake robots up with machine learning algorithms, so that they can learn how the fish look and act when they are healthy or ill. “That would be another great use case… but we're not quite there yet!” says Kristin. 

Alongside industry applications, Eelume robots are also proving useful for academic research. When I spoke with Kristin in early February, the Eelume robots were on an adventure off the coast of Svalbard, this time with Trondheim’s Vitenskapsmuseet. In the freezing seas of the most northern parts of Norway, Eelume robots swam down to explore the carcasses of shipwrecks lost during the Second World War. “The shape of the robots makes them ideal for swimming through narrow openings,” says Kristin. “And because they can swim to such depths, they are great marine archaeologists!”

The best of all worlds

The Eelume robot’s mix of academic and industry applications mirrors its cross-sector development; starting with fundamental research at NTNU, to technology translation and collaboration with SINTEF and industry partners. “The tech environment in Trondheim and Norway as a whole has been crucial for this project,'' says Kristin. “We can trust each other, and that trust is so important for close cooperations between academic research and industry.” It’s clear that with the Eelume robot, there is a reinforcing and synergistic relationship between fundamental research, industries, and societal needs.

They are great marine archaeologists!
– Prof. Kristin Y. Pettersen

Although a lot of what Kristin’s research group does is very theoretical, “we let the applications guide where the research should go,” says Kristin. “It helps by pointing to the gaps in theory that need to be filled”. These applications also surface the existential questions that trouble the bio-inspired robotics community. For example, how closely should robotic solutions adhere to their biological blueprints? Swimming snakes obviously don’t grow their own propellers, but attaching them to the Eelume robot means it can maintain a stable position in the water — helping it to both tighten a screw and discover long-lost underwater treasures. “We had many discussions within the community about this,” says Kristin. “But ultimately we decided that we want to combine the best ideas from nature and technology.”