Robotic fish developed by scientists at the University of Essex in the U.K. are soon to evolve from engineering curio to actual tool when they go on a world-first mission off the coast of Spain. As part of the larger European SHOAL project, the fish will be sent to swim in the sea and monitor for pollutants coming from a busy port.
It’s going to cost around $3.6 million to get the project off the ground, with a portion of that sum covering the cost of each robo fish–apparently a steep $30,000. Though that sounds like a lot, you have to check out the video that demonstrates the prototype robots in development–the similarity to the way real fish propel themselves is nothing short of remarkable.
It’s a classic example of biomimicry. Fish, and dolphins and sharks, have evolved to the point where their swimming efficiency is extraordinarily high. It’s a vital technique to conserve precious energy reserves in a harsh eco-system, of course, and it puts most human-designed underwater propulsion systems to shame. Hence the interest in developing robot fish, hat can have a higher battery lifespan as a result.
The five-foot long fish in the SHOAL scheme will operate autonomously, swimming at will around selected areas of the ocean, only returning to their base stations every eight hours when they need a charge. They’re going to be equipped with a sophisticated sensor suite that will monitor for ship-and-shore-based chemical spills and oil contamination of the surface and deeper waters off the town of Gijón in Asturias. Their data logs are downloaded wirelessly as they charge, and collated to form a picture of when and where pollution was sourced.
As the Essex University press release has it: “The technology developed will enable a port authority to gain increased mobility and flexibility to monitor ship-source pollution, as well as other types of harmful contaminants and pollutants from underwater pipelines.” And it’s a neat justification for developing a five-foot robotic fish too.