The Shoal Consortium, a group comprised of European universities and businesses, has come up with a high-tech way to keep an eye out for pollution in European harbors: robotic fish. These robo-fish, which were developed to look like and swim like real fish, can autonomously seek out pollution, debris and chemicals in the water and then feed information back to shore where it can be analyzed.
Robo-fish are nothing new, we've covered a few versions here before, from amazingly realistic-looking ones that scan the open ocean for pollutants to those that lead other fish away from danger, like turbines of power plants or oil spills, but these have the special task of monitoring the water in and around Europe's harbors, where the constant in and out of ships has lead to a lot of non-policed polluting.
"The idea is that we want to have real-time monitoring of pollution, so that if someone is dumping chemicals or something is leaking, we can get to it straight away, find out what is causing the problem and put a stop to it," explains Luke Speller, a senior scientist at the research division of BMT Group, which is part of the consortium, to BBC News.
Right now, contamination testing is done in harbors only once a month, which leaves plenty of time for ships to come in and leak chemicals that could move up the coastline well before the next test is done. With the robotic fish, a watchdog would always be in the water, which could help keep marine environments cleaner and hold shipping companies more responsible.
The yellow robots are 1.5 meters long and mimic a fish's swimming movements quite closely. Like a fish, they can change direction quickly even in shallow water and use their fins to propel themselves. A rechargeable battery provides the power.
The advantage of the biomimetic design is that fish have a perfectly hydrodynamic shape which allow them to move through water with ease, while fins also give the robot the ability to swim through weedy or debris-laden waters where propellers would get clogged and snagged.
The fish use micro-electrode arrays to detect contaminants like phenols and heavy metals such as copper and lead, as well as monitor oxygen levels and salinity. The scientists developed the robots to have interchangeable sensors, so depending on the body of water, it can be outfitted with chemical sensor units that pick up different things like sulphates or phosphates.
Once the fish detect a chemical, they then search for the source. The robots can work alone or in teams by using acoustic signals to communicate with each other and the port.
The scientists are currently testing the robot fish in the port of Gijon in northern Spain and could be destined for more than just pollution-sniffing.
"When we have our prototype, then we'll know what needs to be done to make this a complete commercial system. We hope it could happen in the next few years," said Dr Speller.
"In the future, what I'd also like to see is not just a single task robot, but robots that can multitask - robots that can do search and rescue, monitoring for underwater divers, at the same time as tracking pollution."