Robot Fish Take Over Schools of Real Fish, Lead Them to Safety


Images credit: NYU-Poly

Now this is the kind of robotic fish we're really looking for. It doesn't just content itself with scanning the ocean for information on pollutants or changing temperatures, as is the primary objective of the other robo-fish we've seen so far. Nope, this robotic fish is in the hero business. It is designed to take over schools of real fish and lead them toward safer water.
Created by Maurizio Porfiri, assistant professor at Brooklyn laboratories at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), the robotic fish are created with the potential use of leading fish away from the turbines of power plants. Or, as the technology proves itself, the smart materials and mathematics behind the robots could be fashioned into any number of animal-saving super heroes, like leading migrating birds to new nesting grounds as climate change or human impact ruin their usual destinations.


According to NYU-Poly, leading bait fish swimming in his tanks is a rich starting point because their information-sharing systems is easiest to monitor and potentially replicate. Fish, "make their decision on whether to school based upon what they see and the flow that they feel, which can be studied using fluid dynamics. Fish leaders, according to biologists' published literature and Dr. Porfiri's observations, beat their tails faster, mill about and accelerate to gain attention, gather a school and lead it." Copying this in a robot's programming has proven successful.

Using a shallow, donut-shaped tank and cameras, the NYU-Poly team began a mathematical journey into fish schooling in one-dimensional environments. They recently reported their results from this study in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Meanwhile, they built silent, remotely controlled, fish-like robotic swimmers that fit in the palm of a hand. These first robots can "swim" along a plane; the next step is to create robots that can dive and surface. Dr. Porfiri's first technical paper on the robotic fish received the Best Robotics paper award at the 2009 American Society of Mechanical Engineers Conference on Dynamic Systems and Controls.

Emulating fishy movements is tough, but researchers are getting better and better. Early last year, we saw a robotic fish created by researchers to patrol the oceans for pollutants. While it looks fake to human eyes, it sure moves like a real fish!

The challenges include making the robotic fish swim silently and move in a manner that matches real fish. Ionic polymers that swell and shrink with electrical stimulation from a battery were necessary to get these types of movements. And of course there is the issue of powering these heroic figures. Dr. Porfiri is even looking into energy harvesting with underwater microsensors that can harness energy from currents and vibrations, or even powering the fish entirely by electromagnetic waves.

Popular Science writes that Porfiri's team is still studying the effect of numerosity, or the perception of numbers, on schooling behavior; for instance, fish typically count three or four objects around them, whereas humans count around ten. Taking this into account is important for getting robotic leaders to be followed by various species.

Leading fish to safer water... brilliant! The only problem, of course, is there is relatively little safe water left in the oceans. The robotic fish will end up leading all the schools to marine reserves...and how crowded those will become!

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Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Fish | Oceans