These Robotic Sea Turtles May Soon Guard The Oceans

The robotic reptile is the latest in a menagerie of mechanical creatures designed to use the best of animal design to help people (without having to spend months house training).

What would you do if this creature swam up beside you? It’s a robot turtle created by students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich. Called the Naro-Tartaruga, it’s designed to have all the effortless efficiency of a real-life reptile, but with a lot of useful human gadgetry–cameras, computers, sensors–on-board. A sea turtle to do exactly what we tell it, in other words.


One day, it could be used for “locating objects such as containers, tracking pollution, inspecting ship hulls or pipelines, searching for bodies, or for mapping the chemical and physical properties of a lake or ocean,” according to Cedric Siegenthaler, a 26-year-old MSc student at the institute, who leads the design team.

Siegenthaler says he wanted to build robot fish since high school. After studying various types, he initially hit upon tuna, because of their very high swimming ability. “The big motivation behind using fish is their smooth and fluent locomotion. Unlike walking robots, they have a continuous motion that not only suggests efficiency but also means they are very aesthetic,” he says.

“The fin of a tuna in cross-section looks like an airplane wing. It produces its thrust not by pushing the water backwards like a rowing boat, but from a thin sharp fin that cuts the water at an angle, and generates a flow around the fin.”

The team managed to produce a nice looking specimen that was fully functional in the water. But the problem was that there was little space left for extra equipment. In a sense, the tuna was too coherent as an animal for human adaptation. So the team set upon the turtle.

“We searched for an animal with a stiffer body, but with the same principle of locomotion. It turns out that sea turtles also have a wing-shaped flipper and use the same principle for continuous forward swimming.”

The 176 pound, 5.6 feet, turtle is still at the testing stage. But Siegenthaler says he hopes to continue with the project once he finishes his studies this year. “We hope to be able to keep Naro-Tartaruga alive for a long time. I will try to collaborate with other institutes to optimize the locomotion, the fins, and the autonomy of the system. Our idea is to educate younger students, to make robotics accessible for the public, and to search for alternative propulsion concepts underwater.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.