April 22, 2022

Manta ray robots come to life at 2022 Engineering Design Fair

Fourth-year Schulich students face many challenges in completing capstone projects
The Schulich Manta-Ray Team poses for a photo at the Engineering Design Fair. Supplied

When most people are asked about drones, they think about the devices that fly high in the sky.

The idea of creating robots to float underwater inspired several Schulich School of Engineering students for their fourth-year capstone projects.

Working with their sponsors at China’s Tianjin University, two teams built drones designed to flap their fins to move, the same way manta rays do.

Not only were the two teams excited to show off their work at UCalgary’s 2022 Engineering Design Fair in early April, but both also proved to be popular stops for onlookers and judges.

Overcoming adversity

To say that the Schulich Manta-Ray Robot Team — made up of Daniel Dascher, Sarah Forman, Liam Kuppe, Andreas Bergmann, Carson Blomquist and Shayan Farooq — faced a few challenges in their journey of building a robot might be an understatement.

While excited to be working on robotics and biomimicry, the scope of the project took the team by surprise as the students had to design, manufacture, assemble and test the robot — a process that normally takes years.

“Not only that, but the bot is driven by a tensegrity structure,” Dascher says.

When most people think about robotic motion, it’s likely associated with elbow-like joints, rotating limbs or extension, while this robot is held together in compression by an elastic cable in tension.

The group was also introduced to lots of uncertainty during the project.

“Throughout our degree, we are taught countless equations and modelling methodologies to try and prevent uncertainty,” says Forman. “However, during this project, there were many things that couldn’t be modelled or assumed before we had a physical prototype in our hands, such as waterproofing.”

Making dreams come true

The team wasn’t done facing adversity heading into the final days before the design fair, as the robot received some damage in transit, forcing the students to change their presentation plan to showcase a series of simulations.


A 3D rendering of the manta ray robot put together by the Schulich Manta-Ray Robot Team.

Daniel Dascher

While disappointed, they were also grateful for the opportunity to work on something unique.

“I remember hearing in high school about a university that was working on a jellyfish robot, which sounded really amazing,” Blomquist says. “When I saw that our capstone had the option for a manta ray robot, I naturally gravitated towards it.”

The team was also grateful for the relationships created in trying to build the drone, as well as the technical experience and tools they will need as they enter the work world.

“It was amazing to watch a figment of my imagination be constructed into reality,” Farooq says. “The complexity that rudimentary motion can bring to an engineering problem through simple math and joint manipulation still blows me away.”

Another ray of sunshine

Just a couple of booths away, the Robotic Autonomous Electro-Mechanical Ocean Navigating Device (RAEMOND) team was also kept busy during the fair.

The team — made up of Anthony Thomas Demong, Joel Feniak, Luke Fouad, Levi Roberts, Bryant Schroeder and Evan Wilkinson — was proud of what it was able to show off to the judges and public.

“It’s an alternative to the traditional underwater unmanned aerial vehicles,” Fouad explained to Livewire Calgary.

The students hoped their design would provide greater efficiency as compared to a traditional submarine design with better low-speed control.

“So if you try to observe wildlife up close, you can achieve that a lot better with this sort of design,” said Fouad.

Underwater exploration

With the journey of building their capstone projects now complete, both teams acknowledge they could have continued working on their respective robots.

“I think, for the most part, we’re kind of passing the torch at this point,” says RAEMOND’s Demong.

The final designs are being sent back to Tianjin Universityn where a team will do some fine-tuning and potentially pass the projects on to other teams of students.

“Dr. Jun Chen is studying the efficiency of the flapping motion of their wings, and how and if it can be re-created mechanically,” Kuppe says. “Large batoid rays are capable of extreme maneuverability.”

The teams are also excited about what the drones could do in the future.

“Not only can this bot be used now for the study of manta rays, but maybe in the future with further development, the bot could be used for reef exploration and other underwater activity,” says Bergmann.

Look back at this project and all others that were part of the 2022 Engineering Design Fair.