Look over there, swimming through the waves. Is it a fish? Is it a robot? No, it’s … well, yes. It is a robot: a robot shaped like a fish. And this week, it was swimming through the water off the Spanish port of Gijon, flexing its fins as it went through the motions of conducting the kind of coastal marine patrol for which it was created.
No, not that. This piscine Robocop is designed to hunt for pollution. Created by a consortium of scientists funded by the European Union, the fish is about 5 feet long, costs around $31,000, and is fitted with sensors to pick up pollutants leaking from ships or undersea pipelines. According to Luke Speller of the BMT Group, who was Project Leader for the consortium, the fish has “the capability of cutting the detection and analysis of pollutants in sea water time from weeks to just a few seconds. Chemical sensors fitted to the fish permit real-time in-situ analysis, rather than the current method of sample collection and dispatch to a shore based laboratory.”
Nor is the fish that was swimming off Gijon intended to be the only one of its kind. The plan is for the fish to be able to work either alone or as part of a robotic shoal, so that when one has detected the presence of a pollutant, it can relay that information to the others, which can work between them to track down the source. According to BMT, the fish can map “where it is, where it needs to go, what samples it has taken and where from and what the chemical composition of the samples are, as well as communicating all of this back through shallow water to a base station (and) the other fish.”
The rationale behind making the robots look like fish is not just so they will look way cooler than non-fish-mimicking equipment but to take advantage of the hydrodynamic shape perfected over millions of years, and also because using a fin instead of a propeller for propulsion should make it easier for the robot to operate in coastal environments that are thick with weeds.
Speller says he hopes the final, commercial version will be ready to roll off the production line in a few years; when it does so, he says, it should be cheaper, and also ultimately even more versatile.
“In the future, what I’d also like to see is not just a single task robot, but robots that can multi-task – robots that can do search and rescue, monitoring for underwater divers, at the same time as tracking pollution,” he told the BBC.
Photos courtesy Emmett & Smith Ltd.