Robot Fish Can Trick the Real Thing

Scientists have long turned to nature for inspiration and innovation. From unlocking the secrets of spider silk to create super-strong materials to taking hints from geckos for new adhesives, clues from the natural world often lead to advances in our practical world. But the relationship between engineering and nature has been largely one-directional, with humans reaping the majority of the benefits of discovery.

What if it was possible to close the loop, and combine human ingenuity and nature's wisdom to protect a species or ecosystem?

Maurizio Porfiri, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, is one step closer to that goal through his research into the behavior of schooling fish, which is funded by a prestigious NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. Porfiri's findings led him to create a series of biologically inspired robots that may help preserve and protect marine life.

"Studies of schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of animals have inspired robotic systems designed for our own applications," said Porfiri. "But I wanted to see if I could close the gap, bringing some of those benefits back into the natural world."

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Porfiri's background in dynamical systems, mechanics of advanced materials and underwater robotics aided in the creation of robotic "leader" fish that, while not especially lifelike at first glance, are deceptively agile swimmers. When deployed in an environment with groups of gregarious fish, these robotic members have been effective at influencing the school's behavior. Porfiri suggests that one of the secrets to the robots' ability to successfully school with real fish may lie in their mimicry of the swim characteristics of real fish.

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