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Robot Fish Can Trick the Real Thing


This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

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?

Dr. 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.

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In the meantime, the NSF CAREER grant, which also supports community outreach, gives Porfiri the opportunity to take his work beyond the lab to recapture the old dream of spending his days at the zoo. Throughout the academic year, he and his students can be found at the New York Aquarium, where they nurture a passion for math, science and engineering among local elementary and middle school students. The young students engage in authentic robot design experiments, creating custom caudal fins for robotic fish. By deploying robots equipped with these fins during test swims, the classes learn how fin size and shape affect swimming performance.

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