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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Robot of the Day: G8 Robotic Fish to Detect Water Pollution

British scientists, specifically, researchers at University of Essex, plan to release a bunch of robot fish into the sea off north Spain to detect pollution. This is part of three-year research project funded by the European Commission and coordinated by BMT Group Ltd.

These carp-shaped robots look very much like the real ones, big ones (nearly 5 feet) -- roughly the size of a seal. The tiny chemical sensors installed on these robot fish enable them to find sources of potentially hazardous pollutants in the water.

These robots all have autonomous navigation capabilities, meaning no remote control is needed to direct them. All that is required is to simply "let them loose". Using Wi-Fi technology, data collected can be transmitted to the the port's control center. The battery on each fish can last approximately 8 hours and similar to the Roomba vacuum cleaning robots, they are smart enough to return to a "charging hub" to get recharged when battery runs low. The video below demonstrate the swimming capability of such a robot fish, the G8 model. It really swims like a fish!!

The fish can swith at a maximum speed of about one meter per second, which means the fish can be away from the "charging hub" for as far as 14.4 kilometers (which I think might be too far for the charge hub to still receive good signals). The cost for building one of such robot fish is around £20,000 (roughly $29,000), so it is certainly not cheap. There are also smaller ones created by the same group of researchers as shown in this video below. I guess these are more suited for a fish tank.

So why robot fish? Why not the very machine-looking like mini-submarines? Rory Doyle, a senior research scientist at BMT Group said,

"In using robotic fish we are building on a design created by hundreds of millions of years' worth of evolution which is incredibly energy efficient. This efficiency is something we need to ensure that our pollution detection sensors can navigate in the underwater environment for hours on end."

Personally, I think this technology is great because:
1. As stated, using the fish design is very energy efficient.
2. The robots can navigate autonomous, which doesn't require human interaction.
3. Chemicals dissolved in the water under the surface can be detected.
4. Data can be sent to the data center wirelessly.
5. The fish robots can recharge themselves when needed.
6. The fish form also help them blend in with the environment (and maybe disguise them from people who intentionally pollute our water).

Now if they are capable of the following, it can be even better:
1. Trace the source of the pollution on their own autonomously (maybe through some heuristic path planning algorithms)
2. Take pictures of the pollution source (to help identify/analyze the cause and maybe use them as evidence in a court of law).
3. Somehow obtain energy on their own? Eat seaweed, little fish, or shrimp and generate energy through metabolism?
4. Also, in case of malfunction, is there an easy way to retrieve it? Maybe using another robotic fish?

Every coin has two sides, and there are certainly concerns for this technology too. For example: what if other fish (a shark? although a shark is not technically a fish) attacks the robotic fish and treats it as food? I am sure the robot fish won't be easy to digest and might kill the poor (real) fish. How who's responsible for that? And how about the disappointing fisherman who happen to catch the robotic fish?

You can read more about the robotic fish from the following articles:

Article at BMT web site
News Article at Reuters

Shear will power, no matter how strong it is, will not make a problem go away.