Robotic fish developed to detect pollutants

Intelligent robotic fish that are capable of working together to detect and identify pollution in ports and other aquatic areas have been developed.

The robotic fish, which are 1.5 metres long, can identify heavy metals including copper, lead and phenols, and also oxygen levels and salinity.

SHOAL, a consortium of six organisations managed by BMT and part-funded by the EU, said the fish can cut down the detection and analysis of pollutants from weeks to just a few seconds.

“Chemical sensors fitted to the fish permit real-time in-situ analysis, rather than the current method of sample collection and dispatch to a shore based laboratory. Furthermore, the Artificial Intelligence which has been introduced means that the fish can identify the source of pollution enabling prompt and more effective remedial action,” Luke Speller, Project Leader of SHOAL and Senior Research Scientist at BMT Group said.

In 2009, before the SHOAL project began, the University of Essex built an advanced robotic fish that could swim with a fishlike undulating motion. However, it had no capabilities other than its ability to swim. For the past three years, SHOAL - a consortium which includes BMT, the University of Essex, the Tyndall National Institute, the University of Strathclyde, Thales Safare, and Port Authority of Gijon - has been working on five key areas of development which include Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Design, Chemical Analysis, Underwater Communication and Hydrodynamics.

The robotic fish have been developed to blend into the marine environment so they do not disrupt or impact it in a negative way. The fish are able to manage multiple problems including avoiding obstacles, knowing where to monitor pollution, finding the source of a pollution, maintaining communication distance from the other fish and returning to be recharged. The robotic fish can map where it is, where it needs to go, what samples it has taken, what the chemical composition of the samples are, and can communicate this back through shallow water to other fish, a base station, and the user interface.

“One of the greatest achievements of SHOAL is getting robots running outside the lab and in the harsh, dynamic conditions of the sea. Autonomously exploring and investigating the harbour, the fish can work together to monitor and track down sources of pollution,” Speller said.

SHOAL’s next step is to look at a commercialisation plan and calculate the work required to get the fish ready for production. The fish cost around £20,000 to build but SHOAL expects this to decrease.

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