Engineers at Michigan State University are currently developing robotic fish which can be coordinated to swim in schools, maneuver in moving water, and keep an eye on water pollution in our oceans, lakes and rivers. The research is yet another instance of nature inspiring technology which is more adequately suited to navigate real situations.

"Fish are very efficient," explained Xiaobo Tan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at MSU. "They can perform very efficient locomotion and maneuvering in the water." Thus, by building robots modeled after fish and strapping them with devices that test for water quality, researchers believe that a consistent level of data could be gathered which simply wasn't possible before.

"It will bring environmental monitoring to a whole new level," added fellow MSU researcher Elena Litchman. The robotic fish should be able to detect the onset of toxic algal blooms as well as monitor changes to freshwater ecosystems wrought by climate change. Schools of robo-fish could be deployed to scan aquafarms and reservoirs.

In order to get the robots to swim in schools, they will be connected via a wireless network to a central docking station. Global positioning system technology and inertial measurement units will allow for precise navigation and organized coordination.

Furthermore, to mimic the movement of real fish, the robots will be equipped with fins built from electro-active polymers that use electricity to change shape, much in the same way that real muscle tissue responds to ion movements. Infrared sensors also could be used for "eyes" so they can avoid obstacles.

So far the researchers have only built a prototype — a 9-inch bot modeled after a yellow perch. Although the device isn't strong enough to resist stiff currents yet, future versions have already been planned which will incorporate the ability to change buoyancy to assist locomotion.

Once the technology is perfected, it could lead to major leaps and bounds in the field of bio-robotics. At the very least, the research should lead to new breakthroughs in understanding the physics of how fish swim and maneuver in their environments.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Robot fish to swim in schools and test water quality
Researchers are developing robotic fish to swim our waterways and patrol for pollutants.