A school of robo-fish may help improve fishery and restore native species.
Robot fish may soon be cruising the Great Lakes to collect and transmit data that will help researchers, biologists and fisheries staff improve both the fishery and the health of the lakes.
Xiaobo Tan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan State University, and his research team have been working on creating robot fish that can do that very thing.
Tan and team have been successfully testing progressive generations of their designs and are planning to use the robot fish in the next month or so in Lake Erie to study toxic algae blooms.
Cody Thon, research assistant and a mechanical designer of the robots, confirmed, "We have a deadline right now to have two of these new ones done before summer, probably May. There is an algae problem every summer in Lake Erie, so it would be wise to bring them out and see what they can do."
Tan and his colleagues conducted several on-the-water tests with the robots, the results of which were very promising. "We were able to run the robot: Diving, swimming, going to certain spots, collecting data on harmful algae and temperatures, and send back that data to laptops," Tan said.
Initially, the research team plans to use the fish to address the issue of toxic algae blooms, which can be a threat to both marine life and humans. According to MSU zoology Professor Elena Litchman the robot fish will be able to move and navigate independently while recording and transmitting data on water temperature, oxygen levels, pollutants and locations of invasive algae populations.
"We chose to fit these fish with sensors for toxic algae blooms," said Litchman, "but I think other researchers will use this technology in the future to monitor different aspects of water quality."
The robofish are of course fashioned from of man-made polymer materials. But the robots are designed to look and move much like real fish, and should not disturb actual fish or other lake creatures.
The robots operate without gears or motors, but rather by electroactive polymers that function not unlike real muscle fibers. An internal lithium battery powers the robot. In addition to being directed via remote control, the robots are able to move and navigate on their own via a biofeedback system that responds to external stimulation such as sound.
"These materials are often referred to as artificial muscles because they change their shape in response to electrical stimulation, much like muscles do," Tan said.
Tan also indicated that the applications for the robot fish may extend beyond the initial algae bloom focus: "Ultimately we can use the information to improve the management of the fishery resources and practices. And so we can help restore native species, and we can help find ways to control invasive species."
Tan also suggested that they are designing the robot fish to be a cost effective management tool, and that the robofish should cost less than $1,000 per fish. Larger scale production of the robots is, however, still some distance from becoming reality.