Designing ‘robofish’ to steer fish away from oil spills

March 2nd, 2012 - 4:08 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, March 2 (IANS) Inspired by nature, researchers have perfected a ‘robofish’ which is capable of leading a school of real fishes and, if need be, steer them away from toxic oil or chemical spills.

‘Robofish’ is the outcome of a series of experimentation, based on an analysis of collective shoal behaviour, conducted by researchers from Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly).

Researchers were intrigued to find that their ‘robofish’ could not only infiltrate and be accepted by real fishes, but actually assume a leadership role, the Journal of the Royal Society Interface reports.

Stefano Marras, then postdoctoral fellow with NYU-Poly and now researcher at Italy’s Institute for the Marine and Coastal Environment and Maurizio Porfiri, NYU-Poly associate professor of mechanical engineering, found conditions that induced golden shiners fish species to follow in the wake of the ‘robofish,’ taking advantage of the energy savings it generated.

The researchers designed their ‘robofish’ to mimic the tail propulsion of a swimming fish, and conducted experiments at varying tail beat frequencies and flow speeds, according to an NYU-Poly statement.

In nature, fish positioned at the front of a school beat their tails with greater frequency, creating a wake in which their followers gather. The followers display a notably slower frequency of tail movement, leading researchers to believe that the followers are enjoying a hydrodynamic advantage from the leaders’ efforts.

Marras and Porfiri placed their robot in a water tunnel with a golden shiner school. First, they allowed the robot to remain still, and unsurprisingly, the “dummy” fish attracted little attention.

When the robot simulated the familiar tail movement of a leader fish, however, members of the school assumed the behaviour patterns they exhibit in the wild, slowing their tails and following the robotic leader.

“These experiments may open up new channels for us to explore the possibilities for robotic interactions with live animals — an area that is largely untapped,” explained Porfiri.

The researchers posit that robotic leaders could help lead fish and other wildlife that behave collectively — including birds, away from toxic situations such as oil or chemical spills or human-made dangers such as dams.

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