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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Schools of Robo-fish for Finding Oil Spills, Tracking Wildlife

University of Washington in Seattle has created a team of robotic fish that are programmed to swim together as a school. The three robo-fish were tested in an indoor freshwater tank, and did relatively well sticking together as a unit. The problems that have kept this kind of innovation from succeeding in the past is that radio waves don’t travel well underwater, and that’s what the fish would use to stay in communication with one another. Previous versions of the fish had to be linked together with a cable, or would have to surface to receive signals from a central command. The new versions use sonar-like pings from acoustic modems, or radio when they’re in close proximity of one another.

The fish use servo-actuated two-link tails and flapping pectoral fins, which allow them to swim like any other fish, going in any direction, making sharp turns, or even swimming backwards. Powered by NiMH rechargeable batteries, each fish controls its own movements using onboard microprocessors for collecting data and processing control commands, and they’re equipped with a pressure sensor to gauge depth, and a 3D compass.

The point? Robo-fish that can school can be used to track things such as oil spills and wildlife, gathering much more information and covering much more distance than single units. This means we can learn more at a faster rate…if we can get them to work in the oceans and not just a safe swimming pool. There is also the issue of how sonar pings that the fish use to communicate with one another might interfere with the sonar used by the wildlife they’re sent to track. And also the issue of…well, there are a whole lot of issues yet to be addressed. Let’s just first see if the things can work accurately, I suppose.

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