Michigan State Collaboration Spawns Robotic Fish to Monitor Water Quality
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Michigan State University

Engineer and ecologist developing “robot fish” to probe underwater environments

Nature inspires technology for an engineer and an ecologist at Michigan State University. They’re developing robots that use advanced materials to swim like fish to probe underwater environments.

“Fish are very efficient,” said Xiaobo Tan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “They can perform very efficient locomotion and maneuvering in the water.”

Robotic fish--perhaps schools of them operating autonomously for months--could give researchers far more precise data on aquatic conditions, deepening our knowledge of critical water supplies and habitats.

Tan and Elena Litchman, an assistant professor of zoology based at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station on Gull Lake in Kalamazoo County, recently won funding from the National Science Foundation to integrate their research.

“The robotic fish will be providing a consistent level of data that hasn’t been possible before,” Litchman said. “With these patrolling fish we will be able to obtain information at an unprecedented high spatial and temporal resolution. Such data are essential for researchers to have a more complete picture of what is happening under the surface as climate change and other outside forces disrupt the freshwater ecosystems. It will bring environmental monitoring to a whole new level.”

The robotic fish will carry sensors recording such things as temperature, dissolved oxygen, pollutants and harmful algae. Tan also is developing electronics so the devices can navigate and communicate in their watery environment.

The robots will communicate wirelessly with a docking station after surfacing at programmed intervals and could similarly be linked to other robotic fish for coordinated maneuvers or signal relay. Global positioning system technology and inertial measurement units will allow precise navigation.

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