Scientists create miniature underwater robots that swarm like fish

Scientists create miniature underwater robots that swarm like fish

Inspired by how schools of fish intuitively synchronize their movements, Harvard scientists have designed miniature underwater robots capable of forming autonomous swarms.

Each robotic fish, known as a Blue bot, is equipped with cameras and blue LED lights that detect the direction and distance of others within the water tanks.

They swim with flapping fins instead of propellers, which improves their efficiency and manoeuvrability compared to standard underwater drones.

“It’s definitely useful for future applications, for example, an open ocean search mission where you want to find people in distress and rescue them quickly,” said Florian Berlinger, lead author of a paper about the research that appeared in Science Robotics on Wednesday.

Other applications could include environmental monitoring or infrastructure inspection.

Existing underwater multi-robot systems rely on individual robots communicating with each other by radio and transmitting their GPS positions.

The new system comes closer to mimicking the natural behaviour of fish, which display complex and coordinated behaviour without following a leader.

The 3D-printed robots are about 10 centimetres (4 inches) long and their design was inspired in part by blue tang fish that are native to the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The robots use their camera’s “eyes” to detect other robots in their peripheral vision, then engage in self-organizing behaviour, which includes turning their lights on simultaneously, organizing themselves in a circle, and gathering around a target.

Berlinger described a test in which the robots reached across a water tank to search for a light source.

When one of the robots found the light, it signalled the others to gather together, demonstrating a search and rescue mission.

“Other researchers have already approached me to use my Bluebots as fish substitutes for biological studies on swimming and schooling of fish,” said Berlinger, explaining that robot collectives can help us learn more about collective intelligence in nature.

He hopes to improve the design so that it does not require LEDs and can be used outside of laboratory settings, such as on coral reefs.

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