Robofish to detect pollution

Robotic fish, developed by UK scientists, are to be released into the sea for the first time to detect pollution.

The carp-shaped robots will be let loose in the port of Gijon in northern Spain as part of a three-year research project funded by the European Commission and coordinated by BMT Group Ltd, an independent engineering and risk management consultancy.

If successful, the team hopes that the fish will used in rivers, lakes and seas across the world, including Britain, to detect pollution.

The life-like creatures, which will mimic the undulating movement of real fish, will be equipped with tiny chemical sensors to find the source of potentially hazardous pollutants in the water, such as leaks from vessels in the port or underwater pipelines.

Thanks to Wi-Fi technology, they will then be able to transmit the information to the port's control centre via a "charging hub" where the fish can charge their batteries. This will enable the authorities to map in real time the source and scale of the pollution (see attached graphic).

Unlike previous robotic fish that work with remote controls, these will have autonomous navigation capabilities, enabling them to swim independently around the port without any human interaction. This will also enable them to return automatically to their hub to be recharged when battery life (approximately eight hours) is low.

Rory Doyle, senior research scientist at BMT Group, described the project as a “world first”, adding that scientists involved in designing the fish were using “cutting-edge” methods to detect and reduce water pollution.

“While using shoals of robotic fish for pollution detection in harbours might appear like something straight out of science fiction, there are very practical reasons for choosing this form,” he explained.

“In using robotic fish we are building on a design created by hundreds of millions of years' worth of evolution which is incredibly energy efficient. This efficiency is something we need to ensure that our pollution detection sensors can navigate in the underwater environment for hours on end.”

He added: “We will produce a system that allows the fish to search underwater, meaning that we will be able to analyse not only chemicals on the surface of the water, such as oil, but also those that are dissolved in the water.”

The five fish are being built by Professor Huosheng Hu and his robotics team at the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, University of Essex. He hopes to release them into the water by the end of next year.

The fish, which cost around £20,000 to make, will measure 1.5 metres in length (roughly the size of a seal) and swim at a maximum speed of about one metre per second.

He said: "I am incredibly excited about this project. We are designing these fish very carefully to ensure that they will be able to detect changes in environmental conditions in the port and pick up on early signs of pollution spreading, for example by locating a small leak in a vessel.

“The hope is that this will prevent potentially hazardous discharges at sea, as the leak would undoubtedly get worse over time if not located.”

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