Monday, March 23, 2009

Robot Fish to Detect Ocean Pollution

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News

March 20, 2009
If it looks like a fish and swims like a fish, it usually is a fish. But not this new, lifelike robot fish developed by U.K. scientists. (Raw video below.)

The prototype robot fish, modeled after carp, have been swimming around the London Aquarium as they await their release off northern Spain in 2011.

Equipped with tiny chemical sensors, the fish will collect data on pollution in the port of Gijón and wirelessly transmit the information back to the port's control center.

"It's a little lab onboard the fish," said Rory Doyle, a senior research scientist at BMT Group, the independent engineering company that is coordinating the rollout of the robots with funding from the European Commission. The robots were designed, and are being built, by professor Huosheng Hu and his team at the University of Essex, U.K.

The sensors will detect hazards such as chemical spills and fertilizer runoff and will allow officials to map in real time the sources and impacts of pollution, Doyle said.

He and his colleagues chose a fish design because hundreds of millions of years of evolution have yielded an energy-efficient creature, he said. "Nature has done it very, very well."

(Read about other technology based on nature in National Geographic magazine.)

But mimicking such a successful design comes at a cost: 20,000 British pounds (nearly 29,000 U.S. dollars) per robot, to be precise.

The roughly seal-size fish, therefore, will be built "robust" enough to handle any eventuality, Doyle said. They can't get caught in nets easily, for instance, and their internal tracking systems can help the robot fish avoid collisions with boats and other obstacles.

So far, it also seems unlikely the robot fish will be mistaken for prey: At the London Aquarium, sharks steer clear of the fake fish, possibly because the predators find the robots' electromagnetic fields unpleasant, Doyle said.

At the same time, scientists are working to ensure that the sounds of the robots and other factors don't disrupt the natural environment, he added.


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