Fish have what’s known as a lateral line system that lets them detect vibrations, movement, and pressure gradients in the surrounding water. Organs inside the fish translate that data through electrical impulses, giving them an awareness of their orientation, predation, and the ability to form schools.
It’s that lateral line system that researchers from the A. James Clark School of Engineering (University of Maryland) are developing for their autonomous underwater robots with the same capabilities as fish.
The team has designed a fish-like submarine that allows them to study those lateral lines and even the way fish propel themselves in water and apply that information to autonomous robots. Their fish-like rubber robot is outfitted with a series of sensor nodes that replicate lateral lines, which the researchers use as a feedback loop to emulate fish behavior, enabling it to detect and react to hydrodynamic signals (sensing water movements).
To mimic the way a fish swims, the researchers used an electric motor connected to an expansion wheel — when the wheel spins, the tail flexes back and forth, propelling it through the water. The team is now looking into how to get robotic fish to sense and react to vortices created by other nearby fish, which would allow them produce more robots capable of swimming in schools.
The idea is to develop autonomous robotic fish that can swim through water, collect data on its quality, as well as monitor the environment, and even provide security for ports and harbors. I think this project will be successful; if we can get drones to swarm for entertainment and military applications, it should be capable of performing the same action under water.