Students Staff

22 May 2012

Robotic fish in action

Colchester Campus

Robotic fish put to the test.

Robotic fish built by a team of scientists at Essex have been in action at the Port of Gijon, Spain, showing how they can patrol the sea coast to detect and identify potential pollution in the port. 

The project to build these 1.8 metre long carp-shaped fish has been funded by an EU ICT project called SHOAL and yesterday’s demonstration in Spain was to showcase the advances and developments the team from Essex, in collaboration with five other EU partners, have made during the three years of research.

Traditional methods of monitoring pollution involve obtaining samples to be sent to a lab for testing, which can be time-consuming and makes real-time pollution information far from a reality. SHOAL aims to make this process real-time by using autonomously-controlled fish to perform tests in-situ.

The life-like creatures, which mimic the undulating movement of real fish, are 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. The fish communicate with each other using ultrasonics and information is transmitted to the port's control centre via Wi-Fi from the "charging hub" where the fish can charge their batteries. This enables the authorities to map in real time the source and scale of the pollution.

Unlike previous robotic fish that work with remote controls, these have autonomous navigation capabilities, enabling them to swim independently around the port without any human interaction. This also enables them to return automatically to their hub to be recharged.

Professor Huosheng Hu, leading Essex robotics research team, said: “The SHOAL project has made several major developments: artificial intelligence-based algorithms, novel robotic fish development, real-time chemical analysis, underwater communication and hydrodynamics modelling. It is the world first for this kind of system capable of detecting and analysing pollutants in the sea water in real time. The robotic fish developed at Essex is able to operate in a harsh and dynamic condition of the sea up to a depth of 30 metres. This is a great advancement, comparing with most of the previous robotic fish operating in laboratory conditions and static water.”

SHOAL is conducted by a consortium of six European organisations. Apart from the University of Essex, responsible for new robotic fish development, other partners are the BMT Group, the project coordinators; Thales Safare, responsible for the underwater communication network; the Tyndall National Institute, responsible for the chemical sensors; the University of Strathclyde, responsible for hydrodynamic modelling and the Port Authority of Gijon for the testing port.

“The SHOAL project is only the first step of the long journey toward creating a fully autonomous robotic fish system to detect water pollutions in real time and harsh environments. Although it has successfully demonstrated such a novel concept, its daily operation and successful deployment in a sea port or a river needs further investigation and intensified field testing,” added Professor Hu.

In collaboration with other EU partners, Essex robotics team is currently searching for new research funding to continue such an effort so that such a novel robotic fish system can be commercialised for many potential real-world applications in the near future.


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