Robotic fish are nothing new. Researchers have studied and developed different robotic fish that mimic the real thing and provide valuable data to scientists. Often it is manking reaping the benefits of these robotic fish as they glean data and information we can tap into but one scientist is looking to close the loop and combine human ingenuity and nature’s wisdom to protect a species or ecosystem.
Maurizio Porfiri, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, is getting near that objective with his innovative behavioral research of schooling fish. Porfini received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the organization’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. Porfiri’s findings led him to create a series of biologically inspired robots that may help preserve and protect marine life.
“Studies of schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of animals have inspired robotic systems designed for our own applications,” said Porfiri. “But I wanted to see if I could close the gap, bringing some of those benefits back into the natural world.”
Porfiri studied how leadership is established in schooling fish populations and discovered quite a vast system of information sharing.
“They decide when to school based on a wide variety of factors, including vision and pressure cues from other fish,” adds Porfiri. “By studying these cues, we can learn how school members recognize–and follow–a leader.”
The remarkable part of Porfiri’s study was seeing if he could incorporate an impostor into the group that could establish and enforce leadership. The use of a robot could help lead the group out of dangerous situations — oil spills, chemical spills, man-made dangers or other natural disasters that could be an immediate threat to the school.
So Porfiri doesn’t win points for creating a fish that visually mimics other fish but his robotic leader fish is quite agile. In early tests where the robo-leader is deployed around groups of gregarious fish, these robotic members have been effective at influencing the school’s behavior. Porfiri suggests that one of the secrets to the robots’ ability to successfully school with real fish may lie in their mimicry of the swim characteristics of real fish. Although the first generation of robotic fish can only move laterally on a plane, the next iterations will be able to dive and surface.