A robotic fish caudal fin: Effects of stiffness and motor program on locomotor performance

Christopher J. Esposito, James L. Tangorra, Brooke E. Flammang, George V. Lauder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


We designed a robotic fish caudal fin with six individually moveable fin rays based on the tail of the bluegill sunfish, Lepomis macrochirus. Previous fish robotic tail designs have loosely resembled the caudal fin of fishes, but have not incorporated key biomechanical components such as fin rays that can be controlled to generate complex tail conformations and motion programs similar to those seen in the locomotor repertoire of live fishes. We used this robotic caudal fin to test for the effects of fin ray stiffness, frequency and motion program on the generation of thrust and lift forces. Five different sets of fin rays were constructed to be from 150 to 2000 times the stiffness of biological fin rays, appropriately scaled for the robotic caudal fin, which had linear dimensions approximately four times larger than those of adult bluegill sunfish. Five caudal fin motion programs were identified as kinematic features of swimming behaviors in live bluegill sunfish, and were used to program the kinematic repertoire: flat movement of the entire fin, cupping of the fin, W-shaped fin motion, fin undulation and rolling movements. The robotic fin was flapped at frequencies ranging from 0.5 to 2.4?Hz. All fin motions produced force in the thrust direction, and the cupping motion produced the most thrust in almost all cases. Only the undulatory motion produced lift force of similar magnitude to the thrust force. More compliant fin rays produced lower peak magnitude forces than the stiffer fin rays at the same frequency. Thrust and lift forces increased with increasing flapping frequency; thrust was maximized by the 500× stiffness fin rays and lift was maximized by the 1000× stiffness fin rays.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)56-67
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


  • Biomimetics
  • Caudal fin
  • Fin ray
  • Fish
  • Flexibility
  • Locomotion
  • Robotics


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