Can robot fish find pollution?

A Swim in the Robotic Ocean

A robot fish swims in a tank at the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum July 30, 2002, in Yokohama, Japan.
A robot fish swims in a tank at the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum July 30, 2002, in Yokohama, Japan.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The scientists at the University of Essex aren't the only people interested in creating biomimetic, mechanical sea life. As it turns out, they're not even the only ones looking to unleash such robots on the world's watery pollution problem. In this section, we'll run through a few of the other interesting robot fish out there and look at what they might have to offer the planet.

Robofish: University of Washington researcher Kristi Morgansen developed three biomimetic swimming robots and while they're not as streamlined as those associated with the SHOAL project, they do boast similar technology. They communicate via underwater sound waves, act autonomously and use an array of sensors to monitor their surroundings. While the robofish have to surface every 20 minutes to upload their collected information via satellite, the machines, reportedly, could operate up to six months at a time on a single battery charge [source: Bland]. Morgansen discussed deploying the fish in Washington's Puget Sound to track whales and measure pollution.

The Robotic Squid: Researchers at Japan's Osaka University built a robot squid. As the name implies, this mechanical prototype uses undulating rubber panels on each side of its chassis to maneuver through the water. Plus, its flat body will allow it to enter some of the narrower nooks and crannies of the ocean. While the bot isn't far enough along to have any specific roles assigned to it yet, designers hope to use it to monitor underwater conditions and scout out resources.

Roboctopus: Researchers from Greece, Italy, Israel, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom intend to build a robot with a gentle touch -- the soft caress of mechanical tentacles, to be exact. Each of the Roboctopus' tentacles will contain four cords, each containing electroactive polymers that contract when hit with an electric field, causing the tentacle to flex this way or that. The robot could use these limbs to walk across delicate ocean floor environments without disrupting or damaging the surroundings. These features may enable scientists to better study the effects of pollution on coral reef environments.

These aren't the only biomimetic robot designs based on sea life. Other scientists and research teams have looked to sharks, sea turtles, lampreys and various fish species for inspiration. If all the pollution sniffing doesn't help us protect our environment, then at least we can look forward to a day when mechanized things scuttle and weave through an otherwise lifeless sea.

Explore the links below to learn even more about robotics and the environment.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bland, Eric. "'Talking' Robofish to Swim in Puget Sound." Discovery News. June 17, 2008. (July 8, 2009)
  • Dell'Amore, Christine. "Robot Fish to Detect Ocean Pollution." National Geographic News. March 20, 2009. (July 8, 2009)
  • Liu, Jindong. "Welcome! Essex Robotic Fish." University of Essex. July 8, 2006.
  • Marks, Paul. "Robot octopus will go where no sub has gone before." New Scientist. March 21, 2009. (May 27, 2009)
  • "Robotic fish: the latest weapon in the fight against water pollution." BMT Group Limited. March 19, 2009. (July 8, 2009)
  • "Squid Robot Underwater Inspector Has Unique Propulsion." Nov. 11, 2006. (July 8, 2009)
  • "UK team builds robot fish to detect pollution." Reuters. March 20, 2009. (July 8, 2009)