Penguins may be ungainly on land, but they're speedy swimmers and expert divers. That agility inspired scientists at Festo's Bionic Learning Network to develop the AquaPenguin, an Adélie-size self-navigating bot that "flies" underwater just like the real birds. Highly flexible, it can maneuver in cramped spaces and turn on a dime. Unlike its live counterparts, the bionic bird can also swim backward. Each AquaPenguin behaves differently, but an intelligent 3-D sonar system similar to that used by dolphins and bats enables the bots to travel in groups without colliding. Festo envisions adapting AquaPenguin for automated production systems. It has already built a gripping device sensitive enough to manipulate fragile objects.
The 50 Best Inventions of 2009
From a rocket of the future to a $10 million lightbulb, here are TIME's picks for the best new gadgets and breakthrough ideas of the year