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Robots, once a figment of our imagination, have started to become ubiquitous in our everyday lives. We are used to talking cell phones and driverless trains. But what about pollution-fighting fish robots?

Dr. Huosheng Hu with an early prototype. photo: MotherboardTV

The Shoal Consortium, a group of scientists from University of Essex, the Tyndall National Institute, the University of Strathclyde together with BMT Group, a technology consultancy, and Thales Safare, a unit of Europe’s largest defense electronics group and the Port Authority of Gijon have developed a robotic fish that can detect and report pollution from the source, in real-time.

Luke Speller from the Shoal Consortium explains how it works in this video from BBC News.

Last week, a school of prototype robo-fish was released in the northern Spanish Port of Gijón in the Bay of Biscay. The school of 5-foot long mechanical fish will patrol the harbor, collecting and mapping real-time data of contaminants in the water. The robots detect heavy metals like copper, lead and phenols while operating to depths of around 95 feet. They can also measure oxygen and salinity levels to help monitor the harbor’s environmental health.

Designed to mimic nature, the robotic fish have built-in acoustic sensors so they can “talk” to each other, sonar to “see” and avoid obstacles and a computer brain that tells them where and how best to hunt down sources of pollution.

SHOAL robotic fish released into the wild. photo Luke Speller

From BBC News: Ian Dukes from the University of Essex – another partner in the consortium – says that nature was an obvious inspiration for their robot.

He explains: “Over millions of years, fish have evolved the ultimate hydrodynamic shape, and we have tried to mimic that in the robot. “They swim just like fish; they are really quite agile and can change direction quickly, even in shallow water.”

Dr. Huosheng Hu of the University of Essex in the robotics lab. photo: MotherboardTV

The dual-hinged fish-tail is very maneuverable, enabling the robo-fish to make tight turns a propeller-driven robot couldn’t manage. This makes them easily able to navigate the ports and avoid ships and the port infrastructure.

They are also less noisy, which is better for marine life. The robo-fish are battery-powered and run for about 8 hours between charges. For now, they have to be picked up by boat, but in the future, the scientists plan to program the fish to automatically return to a charging station when the battery runs low.

Watch more at MotherboardTV about the development of the robo-fish.

SHOAL robotic fish. photo Luke Speller

Currently, divers monitor water quality about once a month – a costly, time-consuming process. The port of Gijón pays 100,000 euro a year for divers to collect water samples which are then sent away for analysis for several weeks. The SHOAL robo-fish monitor the water quality in real-time allowing the port authorities to respond immediately to pollution and start mitigating the effects.

“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 to the BBC.

While the primary purpose for the robo-fish is to monitor water pollution, that’s not all the scientists and engineers have planned. The modular design makes it easily adaptable for other uses. The developers hope to refine the robo-fish technology for oil-spill cleanup, maritime search and rescue, and port security.

by Mai Armstrong for Working Harbor Committee

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