Blind Cave Fish Inspire Better Sensing Technology for Underwater Robots

© Nanyang Technological University

Underwater autonomous vehicles (UAVs) will now have an easier time finding their way through murky water thanks to technology that mimics the sensing system of blind cave fish.

Blind cave fish are able to find their way around by relying on the lateral line, lines of hair cells on either side of their bodies that detect changes in water pressure caused by movement and water flowing around an object. These cells let the fish navigate safely through water and avoid obstacles. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are equipping UAVs with new micro-sensor technology that lets the robots avoid obstacles in the same way.

© Michael McConney/Georgia Tech

Nanyang Technological University says, "Using a combination of water pressure and computer vision technology, the sensory device is able to give users a 3-D image of nearby objects and map its surroundings. The possible applications of this fish-inspired sensor are enormous. The sensor can potentially replace the expensive ‘eyes and ears’ on Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), submarines and boats that currently rely on cameras and sonars to gather information about the environment around them.

The revolutionary, low-powered sensor is unlike cameras which cannot see in dark or murky waters; or sonars whose sound waves pose harm to some marine animals."

Another benefit of this technology is that because it can replace energy-intensive cameras and sonar and is low-power itself, it significantly extends the time that a UAV can operate before depleting its batteries. The sensor system costs only $100, which is far cheaper than sonar and it can detect nearby objects, which sonar cannot.

The AUVs that the researchers are developing will be used for environmental sensing. Onboard chemical and biological sensors will detect environmental pollution, contaminants and monitor the overall water quality in Singapore’s waters. The team hopes to eventually develop a sensor system that is piezoelectric and runs off the water moving past the "feelers."

Tags: Biology | Biomimicry | Oceans | Technology

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