Fish are under constant threat from natural disasters, chemical spills, and even boat turbines. Their best chance for survival might be leaders who know when danger is imminent and lead the others to safety...and those leaders might be robot fish.
As a general rule, scientists draw engineering inspiration from nature, which means humans are pretty much the sole beneficiaries of the idea exchange between nature and engineering. But New York University's Dr. Maurizio Porfiri is aiming to change that with his robotic fish, which he hopes will be able to take his research into fish behavior back into the oceans.
"Studies of schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of animals have inspired robotic systems designed for our own applications. But I wanted to see if I could close the gap, bringing some of those benefits back into the natural world. Schooling fish have a rich system of information sharing. They decide when to school based on a wide variety of factors, including vision and pressure cues from other fish. By studying these cues, we can learn how school members recognize-and follow-a leader."
Porfiri's idea was to influence the behavior of these schools of fish by forcing them to obey an external member - yes, a robot fish. So far, laboratory tests have revealed schools of fish are willing to respond to the robot as though it's one of their own, despite the fact that robots don't look very much like the real thing. This is likely because the robots are surprisingly agile swimmers, and they do a good job imitating the movements of their biological fish counterparts.
Eventually, Porfiri hopes many schools of fish out in the wild would be led by these robots. The robots would then be able to detect imminent threats - both natural and man-made - and steer the rest of the fish clear of the danger. For endangered marine populations, this added advantage could mean the difference between extinction and the survival of their species. And all the fish need to do is accept the benevolent dictatorship of their robot fish overlords...not that we're being dramatic or anything.