Thursday, August 9, 2007

Do androids fish for electric carp?

We have lawnmowers that can be set to mow the lawn on their own and return to their shed to recharge, there are even vacuums that will this within our homes and pools. Now we have robo-carp.

Robotic fish have been investigated and developed for over ten years but none are like those that live in the London Aquarium. Prof Huosheng Hu and a team from Essex University took three years to develope what is the smartest cyber fish yet. The world's first autonomously-controlled robotic fish were unveiled in 2005 and have been swimming ever since in the aquarium.

They were inspired by the common carp and Hu's team embedded sensors on board so that, unlike previous fish who were remote controlled, these three fish are fully autonomous and possess an artificial intelligence. They have sensor-based controls and autonomous navigation capabilities so that they can swim around their tank safely, avoid objects and reacte to their environment.

The fish are 50cm long, 15cm high and 12cm wide and covered with bright scales to reflect light. Their maximum speed is about 50cm (20in) per second but they have slowed the fish to half that speed in an effort to conserve battery power. At that speed, they can survive for approximately 5 hours before needing a recharge. In the future, the Essex team would like to increase the intelligence of the fish so that they can recharge themselves. They want them to have the ability to find their own recharging station much like real fish look for food.

"This one is more life-like - it mimics normal swimming and sharp turning. People get confused and think it is a real fish," stated Hu.

Hu stated that they worked with the aquarium marine experts, who shared their knowledge of the behaviour and movement of a wide variety of fish. They were also provided facilities at the aquarium for the robotics team to study many species of fish in detail.

While Prof Hu said that the aim of the project was to bring the public into direct contact with robots, their work also has real-world applications. They could be used for detecting leaks in oil pipelines, mine countermeasures, seabed exploration and improving the performance of underwater vehicles. Foster Archer, London Aquarium director stated that it was amazing how beautiful and graceful the robo-carps movements were and they are very entertaining. The three fish are destined to live with real fish at the aquarium in a tank there.

As seen in these videos, here and here, the fish are more than graceful..... they are a view into the future. A future where I hope they have applications for our benefit and not where they will replace real fish. Of course, I can bet that sometime, somewhere, a technician will program a carp to not take a baited hook.

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