3D Printed Gillbert the Robo-Fish Keeps Waterways Clean by Vacuuming Microplastics


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A student from the University of Surrey designed a 3D printed robotic fish for a new contest, and her winning entry, a Robo-Fish called Gillbert, happily vacuums up microplastics from waterways. Honestly, have you ever seen a cuter way to help save the world?

A group of robotics researchers from the university announced that they would hold a public competition this year for biomimetic robots that could help the world, and thanks to support from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the International Journalist’s Programmes, and the university’s Teaching Innovation Fund, the 2022 Natural Robotics Contest was born. The team told participants that the winning design would be turned into a working prototype, and they received plenty of worthy entries, from crab-inspired space rovers and forest-protecting bear robots to a robotic sea urchin.

“An opportunity for anyone to have their idea for a bioinspired robot be turned into a reality!” the contest website states enthusiastically.

3D printed robot fish ‘Gillbert’

According to Dr. Robert Siddall, Lecturer at the University of Surrey and the contest’s creator, most of the vast amounts of plastic dumped in waterways could end up in any number of places, but no matter where it lands, it will definitely be harmful. The 3D printed Gillbert robot fish, designed by student Eleanor Mackintosh, sucks up plastic microwaste using a set of gills to filter the water, while keeping the waste inside its belly as it continues to swim along and suck up more discarded plastic. In addition to the overarching act of reducing plastic pollution, the microplastics that the robotic fish extracts from bodies of water can also be used for sampling and recycling.

‘Gillbert’ also glows in the dark

Dr. Siddall and his fellow contest researchers—Raphael Zufferey, Sophie Armanini, Ketao Zhang, Sina Sareh, and Elisavetha Sergeev—scored each contest entry independently, and chose Mackintosh’s “Robo-Fish” idea as the winner. They created a 3D printed prototype of Gillbert that’s about the size of a salmon. Fine mesh within the gills sieves out 2 mm particles of microplastic, which remain in the robot’s body as long as it’s in the water.

“Eleanor’s design took thoughtful inspiration from nature and had an important purpose – sampling and tracking microplastics in the water.

“We took her idea and turned it into a fully 3D-printed fish with a set of mesh lined gills, which Eleanor has affectionately named ‘Gillbert’. The robot is now an ongoing piece of robotics research!”

‘Gillbert’ vacuums microplastics from waterways. The gills hide a fine mesh that filters the microplastics.

We’ve seen 3D printed robotic fish serve many applications, from underwater data acquisition and studying marine life to protecting real fish and even studying anxiety and fear. Now Gillbert, with his microplastic vacuuming ability, can be added to the list.

Dr. Siddall and the rest of the team are happy with their initial prototype, but acknowledge that some improvements should be made, including optimizing its fins and powering it via the tail to make Gillbert swim faster. Eventually, the researchers plan to turn the 3D printed robotic fish into a remote-controlled device that could swim on its own.

If you’re interested in making your own Gillbert to vacuum up microplastic in waterways near you, the open source design is free to download on GrabCAD.

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