How Robofish Could Save the World’s Oceans

2 | By Michael A. Robinson

A new breed of robotic “fish” is on track to play a key role in protecting one of Earth’s most precious resources…

The oceans.

This breakthrough is crucial for a simple reason: Without the oceans, there would be no human race. You see, oceans are the source of life on our planet and account for more than 70% of the earth’s surface. And the fish that live there rank as the main source of protein for nearly one billion people.

Yet the world’s population and economies are growing much faster than the oceans can sustain.

Vast regions of the world are subject to overfishing; studies have shown that the variety of marine species in many parts of the world has dropped by as much as 50% in the past 50 years.

Not only that, but run-off from farms carries high amounts of chemicals that first hit streams and rivers. Once all that deadly water flows into the seas, it can kill plankton – the tiny floating creatures that serve as the bedrock for much of the world’s food chain.

What’s more, oceans are under constant threat from pollution far beyond that – of the rare major oil spill.

Surely you remember BP’s massive explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Nearly five million barrels of crude spewed out into the water, causing extensive – still unknown – damage to the wildlife and marine habitats there. Two years later, fishermen are finding eyeless shrimp and other mutant marine creatures around the site of the spill.

Fact is, polluted coastal waters cost the world some $16 billion a year in death and disease. The yearly impact of hepatitis from tainted seafood alone costs a staggering $7.2 billion.

If only there was a better way to monitor the rivers, ports, and coastal areas. Something in place to give us a heads up when pollution threatens plants and wild life.

Thanks to the Era of Radical Change, there is.

A research group in Europe is in the midst of testing a school of robofish (robots designed to look and act just like real fish) at a port in Spain. About 3.5 feet long, the robots work together to spot threats and report back to researchers. This new generation of advanced robotic fish could have a huge impact in fighting water pollution – and related disease – around the world’s oceans.

As of now, most of the world’s water bots look like unmanned machines or boats. But researchers from this project known as SHOAL say they chose to mimic fish instead because the animals offer both a better shape and function.

For one thing, the robot fish have a very small turning radius. This allows them to react quickly in ports, not only to find pollution, but to also avoid ships, small boats, anchors, chains, and propellers. Plus, they don’t make much noise, so they don’t disturb people or other fish.

They use sonar (underwater sound waves) to “see.” They also have an array of sensors to measure their positions, headings, and speed. They augment these with other onboard data such as maps and infrared devices that give them a complete picture of the world around them – a picture they can relay back to the base station.

And let’s not forget chemical sensors. These devices allow the robofish to detect and measure pollution nearly in real time. They report back to the SHOAL research team, which can then alert authorities about any new source of pollution.

Talk about radical change…

SHOAL team members said robots of this nature only became possible in the last three years. They cited combined breakthroughs in five key areas:

  • robotic design,
  • artificial intelligence,
  • chemical analysis,
  • underwater communications, and
  • hydrodynamics, the branch of science that deals with the flow of fluids.

All these innovations bleed together to give us a steady stream of changes that wouldn’t have been possible just a decade ago. This marriage of multiple breakthroughs is just what I’m talking about when I say we’re living in the Era of Radical Change.

These same advances also explain how a research team recently created robotic “pregnant” zebrafish.

This “Fish” Could Help Eliminate Marine Pests

Last month, a research team from the U.S. and Italy said they tested the bot in a large water tank. They’re so realistic they can attract real fish to them.

The team controlled the movements of the zebrafish’s tail remotely. Not only did they paint the robot to command attention, they made the belly round like a fertile female. The reason: That trait attracts both genders of zebrafish.

Here’s the part I really like.

Team members said robot fish could help protect against pests in the near future, too. This could be big.

Many rivers are under threat from non-native fish, most often put there by careless people. With no predators to control them, these unwanted “guests” multiple quickly and threaten to disrupt the natural, local ecosystem. If left unchecked, they can take over streams, rivers and lakes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says “invasive” species pose a threat to both fish and plants. They cost more than $130 billion a year in damage to the environment.

So getting robots to attract real fish in the wild would become a highly valued tool. They could be programmed to fool real fish into “mating” with them or to find eggs that wildlife officials could then destroy. The possibilities are endless.

I’ve often said that high tech can help save America. At the very least, these robofish advances could help the U.S. protect its vital waterways.

2 Responses to How Robofish Could Save the World’s Oceans

  1. J.McPherson says:

    Wait till groups of whales and other larger fish start washing up dead on beaches from eating the robot fish………yeah, what a great idea.

  2. Al Broadman says:

    What say you to McPherson’s commet Michael?

    The commentor has a very good point. What protections does this robot have to prevent larger game fish as well as the dolphins and whales of the oceans from seeing them as a food source and then being harmed by the consumption?

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