Over the past 520 million years, the process of evolution has produced a diversity of nearly 25000 species of fish. This diversity includes thousands of different fin designs which are largely the product of natural selection for locomotor performance. Fish fins can be grouped into two major categories: median and paired fins. Fins are typically supported at their base by a series of segmentally arranged bony or cartilaginous elements, and fish have extensive muscular control over fin conformation. Recent experimental hydrodynamic investigation of fish fin function in a diversity of freely swimming fish (including sharks, sturgeon, trout, sunfish, and surfperch) has demonstrated the role of fins in propulsion and maneuvering. Fish pectoral fins generate either separate or linked vortex rings during propulsion, and the lateral forces generated by pectoral fins are of similar magnitudes to thrust force during slow swimming. Yawing maneuvers involve differentiation of hydrodynamic function between left and right fins via vortex ring reorientation. Low-aspect ratio pectoral fins in sharks function to alter body pitch and induce vertical maneuvers through conformational changes of the fin trailing edge. The dorsal fin of fish displays a diversity of hydrodynamic function, from a discrete thrust-generating propulsor acting independently from the body, to a stabilizer generating only side forces. Dorsal fins play an active role in generating off-axis forces during maneuvering. Locomotor efficiency may be enhanced when the caudal fin intercepts the dorsal fin wake. The caudal fin of fish moves in a complex three-dimensional manner and evidence for thrust vectoring of caudal fin forces is presented for sturgeon which appear to have active control of the angle of vortices shed from the tail. Fish are designed to be unstable and are constantly using their control surfaces to generate opposing and balancing forces in addition to thrust. Lessons from fish for autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) design include: 1) location of multiple control surfaces distributed widely about the center of mass, 2) design of control surfaces that have a high degree of three-dimensional motion through a flexible articulation with the body, 3) the ability to modulate fin surface conformation-
, and 4) the simultaneous use of numerous control surfaces including locating some fin elements in the downstream wake generated by other fins. The ability to manufacture an AUV that takes advantage of these design features is currently limited by the nature of available materials and mechanical drive trains. But future developments in polymer artificial muscle technology will provide a new approach to propulsor design that will permit construction of biomimetic propulsors with conformational and articulational flexibility similar to that of fish fins.
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