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PRI's Environmental News Magazine


Air Date: Week of March 27, 2009

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A small school of robotic fish will soon be released off the shores of northern Spain to search for water pollutants. Equipped with chemical sensors and artificial intelligence, the fish could be key in protecting their living counterparts from the harmful effects of ship leaks and dirty runoff. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with research scientist Luke Speller, leader of the SHOAL project.


GELLERMAN: It sure looks like a fish. And it swims like a fish. But hook this guy on your line, and you’re in for a shock – literally and figuratively.

It’s robo-fish, a robotic carp. Robo-researchers at BMT Group in London are developing the fish-drone to monitor the seas for pollutants. Luke Speller manages the robo fish project. Hello Luke Speller.

SPELLER: Hi Bruce.

GELLERMAN: A robotic fish. How big is it and how does it work?

SPELLER: Well currently the fish is about half a meter in length, but we’re redeveloping it – it’s going to be much larger. So it’s going to be about one meter to one and a half meters long so it can survive in the port environments we’re going to be placing it in.

GELLERMAN: So, boy, that’s a big one. Not the one that got away – it’s like five, five and a half feet.

SPELLER: Yup. That’s a pretty good fish, I think you’d be quite happy if you caught it. But I don’t think you’d be happy if you caught this one, because I think it might break your line.

GELLERMAN: Well, how does it work?

SPELLER: Well it’s an E.U. based project. So we have lots of different companies which are taking part. So, firstly, we have the fish, of course, which are the base of it. And they’re being developed by Essex University in the United Kingdom. And they’ve developed these fish before and they’ve been on show in the London Aquarium as a kind of entertainment fish for people to come and look at. We thought, well, there’s gotta be something better we can do with this than just entertainment. And we thought that, you know, pollution’s a big problem in ports. So Tyndall in Ireland is going to be developing minute chemical sensors which are going to detect pollutants. We’re going to have people from France, Thales, who are working on underwater communication so the fish can all talk to each other. And then us at BMT are going to develop AI so all the fish can figure out what’s the best way to look for pollution.

GELLERMAN: AI meaning artificial intelligence.

SPELLER: Indeed, artificial intelligence.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve got basically aquatic drones.

SPELLER: Uh, yes, but I think what’s quite important is they’re not just drones. So each fish is going to be intelligent, so it will have – it will be able to react to the environment and it will know what’s around it. But what’s more important is that the whole shoal, all of the fish as a whole, will be much more intelligent than any individual fish.

GELLERMAN: Because they can talk to each other.

SPELLER: Exactly, they can talk to each other and together they can see the whole environment. It’s much like how people solve problems. They talk to each other and they learn more from that and they’re able to overcome their difficulties.

GELLERMAN: So … [Laughing] a fish language? I mean what are they going to be saying?

SPELLER: Well, they’ll be talking over ultrasonic communications, so it won’t be any sort of fish language that other fish can understand. But it will be – it will tell – it will give the other fish information about their whereabouts and what pollutions they’ve found. And then from that, they can all work together to try and firstly monitor the harbor for pollution. And especially if they find any pollution, they can all work together to find out what’s causing it. So, this could be an underwater pipe or ship that’s leaking something. And these fish will all work together to find where it’s coming from. Which is much better than the way they do it at the moment, because ports at the moment, what you have to do is you have to take samples of the water. And then these samples have to go back to labs. And this can take a long time; this could take hours to days. And before you’ve finished doing the sampling, the ship’s gone and it’s polluting the whole ocean along the way. But with this we can do it in real time and we can find that ship with these fish before it gets going to the next place and stop it and help save the environment.

GELLERMAN: And they swim autonomously. You don’t have to steer them.

SPELLER: No, you don’t have to steer them. They steer autonomously, they decide where they’re going to go, they avoid obstacles along the way. They do it all themselves.

GELLERMAN: And how do they see things? Do they have little TV cameras?

SPELLER: What they use sonar, much like a submarine would use to find out what’s near it, and that will help them avoid any local obstacles in the port. Because, of course, ports are very busy. There’s going to be ships, pipes, there’s loads of stuff going on and they’re gonna have to be avoiding everything.

GELLERMAN: And battery operated, then.

SPELLER: Yes they’ll be battery operated. So what they’ll do is they’ll go out from the, from the dock where they start, and they’ll go about they’re business. And when it’s time to come – when they’re battery goes low, they’ll come back to the dock and try and recharge.

GELLERMAN: How far can they swim?

SPELLER: They can swim out – they can swim out quite far. The communications got about a kilometer range. So each fish has to be at least within another kilometer of a fish. You don’t have to be within a kilometer of the base station because, of course, the fish can talk to each other and then relay the message back to the base station. So depending on how many fish you’ve got, depends on how far you can go.

GELLERMAN: So what kind of pollution are you going to be sampling? I mean there’s so many different things out there in the sea.

SPELLER: Yes, there is a wide array of pollutants, which are available for testing. What we’re going to do is we’re going to start; we’re looking at nitrates, phosphates, and petrochemicals. So we’re gonna start by looking at these, but what’s important to note is that it can be extended. So different ports have different shipments coming in. Some deal with minerals, some deal with oil. So these fish can be adapted to whatever the environment they’re going to be placed in.

GELLERMAN: How much do these robotic fish cost?

SPELLER: It’s about twenty thousand pounds per fish.

GELLERMAN: Even in today’s world, that’s a lot of money.

SPELLER: It’s quite expensive, but if you compare it to the alternatives, I don’t think it’s too bad.

GELLERMAN: Why make them look like a fish? Why don’t you just make a small submarine?

SPELLER: It’s a great question. Why, why, why have we chosen to use fish rather than a small submarine. There’s actually quite a few reasons for this. Firstly, these fish are almost silent. When you have a propeller, of course, it generates a lot of noise. These fish just use the motions of a normal fish, just undulating backwards and forwards. They won’t have any disturbance on the environment. Secondly, they’re very efficient. And thirdly, which is really important, is that these fish are really maneuverable. They can turn round in one tenth of their body length without reducing speed. Now a submarine would need something like ten times its body length to turn around like that.

GELLERMAN: I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but what happens if a fish higher up on the food chain decides to chomp on this carp for lunch?

SPELLER: Yes, we’ve seen lots of this, people asking about what happens if sharks attack. The fish we have actually placed them in a tank with a shark. And it came close, but it never actually attacked the fish and it sort of shied away. And we think this is cause what we have is a – the fish gives out an electromagnetic field. And this electromagnetic field is very very similar to the sort of electromagnetic field that the protection device divers use to propel sharks.

GELLERMAN: So when are you going to start tossing fish in the sea?

SPELLER: We’re hoping to start in about eighteen months. And then in about 24 months, so about two years, we’re gonna have them with some intelligence and doing some testing with that in the port of Gijon in Spain.

GELLERMAN: Luke Speller is manager of the Robo-fish project at BMT Group in London.



Click here for a link to a Youtube robofish video


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