Get ready for the robotic fish revolution | Trending Viral hub


This article originally appeared on the same magazine, an online publication on science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at

Human technology has long been inspired by the natural world: the first airplanes were inspired by birds. The designer of Velcro was inspired by the annoying burrs that he often had to remove from his dog. And in recent years, engineers eager to explore the world’s oceans have been following the lead of the creatures that do it best: fish.

Around the world, researchers developing robots that look like fish and swim like fish say their aquatic automata are cheaper, easier to use and less harmful to marine life than the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that scientists use. nowadays. In a recent review of technology advancesScientists say only a few technical problems stand in the way of a robotic fish revolution.

Over the past few decades, engineers have designed prototype robotic fish for various purposes. While some are designed to perform specific tasks, such as tricking other fish in a laboratory, simulating the hydrodynamics of fisheither collecting plastics from the ocean—Most are designed to cross the seas while collecting data. These robotic explorers are typically equipped with video cameras to document any life forms they encounter and sensors to measure depth, temperature and acidity. Some of these machines (including a robotic catfish named Charlie, developed by the CIA) can even take and store water samples.

While modern ROVs can already perform all of these tasks and more, the review’s authors argue that robotic fish will be the tools of the future.

“Jobs done by existing ROVs can be done by robotic fish,” says Weicheng Cui, a marine engineer at Westlake University in China and co-author of the study. And “what existing ROVs cannot do, robotic fish can (also) do.”

Since the invention of the first tethered ROV in 1953—a gadget called Poodle—Scientists have increasingly relied on ROVs to help them reach parts of the ocean that are too deep or dangerous for divers. ROVs can reach depths that divers cannot, spend a virtually unlimited amount of time there, and bring back specimens, both live and not, from their travels.

While ROVs have been a boon to science, most models are large and expensive. ROVs used by scientific organizations, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Schmidt Ocean Institute, and OceanX, can weigh almost as much as a rhino and cost millions of dollars. These large, high-end ROVs also require a crane to deploy and must be tethered to a mother ship while in the water.

In contrast, robotic fish are battery-powered robots that typically weigh only a few kilograms and cost a couple thousand dollars. Although some have been designed to look like real fish, robotic fish typically have neutral colors and resemble their biological counterparts only in shape. However, according to Tsam Lung You, an engineer at the University of Bristol in England who was not involved in the review, even the most unrealistic robot fish are less harmful to aquatic life than the average ROV.

Unlike most ROVs that use propellers to move, robotic fish swim like the animals that inspired them. Flexing their tails back and forth, the robotic fish glide silently through the water and do not appear to disturb surrounding marine life, a plus for researchers seeking to study underwater organisms in their natural environments.

Because robotic fish are small and stealthy, scientists can use them to observe sensitive species or venture into the corners of coral reefs, lava tubes, and underwater caves. Although robotic fish are very maneuverable, current models have a major disadvantage: their range is very limited. Without a mother ship to supply them with power and with limited space to store batteries, today’s robotic fish can only spend a few hours at a time in the water.

For robotic fish to make modern ROVs obsolete, they will need a key piece that is currently missing: a docking station where they can recharge their batteries autonomously. Cui imagines a future where schools of small robotic fish work together to accomplish big tasks and take turns docking at underwater charging stations powered by a renewable energy source, such as wave energy.

“Instead of one (ROV), we can use many robotic fish,” says Cui. “This will greatly increase the efficiency of deepwater operations.”

This potential future depends on the development of autonomous underwater charging stations, but Cui and his colleagues believe they can be built using existing technologies. The core of the possible docking station, he says, would likely be a wireless charging system. Cui says this suspicious future could become a reality in less than a decade if demand is large enough.

Still, getting scientists to trade in their ROVs for schools of robotic fish can be a tough sell, says Paul Clarkson, director of breeding operations at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

“For decades, we have benefited from the use of remotely operated vehicles designed and operated by our research and technology partner, MBARI,” says Clarkson. “Their ROVs are an essential part of our work and research, and the capabilities they provide make them an irreplaceable tool.”

That said, he adds, “with the threats of climate change, habitat destruction, overfishing and plastic pollution, we must consider what advantages new innovations can offer to understand our changing world.”

This article first appeared in the same magazine and is republished here with permission.


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