An EU grant worth €1.8m has been awarded to a consortium of five European research institutions to build a robot that will help researchers understand how fish can swim upstream.
The consortium, led by the Tallinn University of Technology, with partners Riga Technical University, the Italian Institute of Technology and the universities of Verona and Bath, will be using biology to inspire the design of a swimming robot that can react to changes in current or flow, such as a fish might encounter in a fast-flowing stream or near the seashore.
The robot could be used to film and study the diverse marine life near the seashore, where conventional propeller-driven submersible robots have difficulty manoeuvring due to the shallow water, kelp, and currents created by waves.
What makes the project unique is that the researchers will be trying to mimic the sense organ found in fish, called the lateral line, which allows the fish to detect the flow of water around it and react to it.
The robot and its propulsion system will be designed by TUT in Estonia and RTU in Latvia. Researchers at IIT in Lecce, Italy, will be developing a sensor to mimic the fish’s lateral line that will detect the flow of water over the robot’s body.
The fish’s complex nervous system will be emulated by computer software developed by the University of Verona, which will allow the robot to interpret changes in flow outside the robot so it can adjust its swimming behaviour to compensate accordingly.
A second team from the IIT, based in Genoa, will be designing the computer hardware and electronics to interpret the lateral line information and generally control the robot.
The researchers from the Ocean Technologies Lab at Bath in the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering will be leading the fish biology for the project, looking at how fish respond to changes in flow.
Dr William Megill, lecturer in biomimetics at Bath University, explained: ‘Currently, most aquatic robots can’t manoeuvre very well in the shallow water near the shore because they just get smashed against the rocks by the force of the waves.
‘However, even in a tsunami, fish manage to sense and swim against the current so that they stay in the water, rather than ending up on the beach.
‘So this project is interesting on two levels – first, we want to understand more about how the fish manages to react to changes in current, and second, we want to create a robot that mimics this artificially.’
When the robot hits the water in a few years’ time, it will provide a tool to safely study and monitor the wave-swept near-shore environment, which will find uses in biological research, demining activities, pollution control, and general monitoring of the world’s most productive ecosystems.
The FILOSE (FIsh LOcomotion and SEnsing) project is financed by the European Union 7th Framework Programme.