Saturday, November 17, 2012

Robot fish capable of interacting with live fish

Robots are getting increasingly intelligent, as we advance in our technology. Nowadays, robots are capable of performing complex tasks, and we are already finding ways to attach robot elements to our bodies, creating so-called cyborgs. It is, however, still too difficult to make robots just as intelligent, or complex, as live animals. Scientists from the University of New York have now set the first steps towards a robot model that behaves just like a fish and is capable of real interaction. Such principles ought to help us change the behaviour of groups of animals, in an effort to preserve nature.

The robot developed by the University of New York is supposed to mimic a zebrafish, which is a small fish often used in all sorts of medical research. The robot is capable of autonomous movement, which it does so in response to other, live fish found in its vicinity. Because of the ability to recognize the presence of others, the scientists set out to see whether their robot was able to alter the behaviour of the real fish.

One of the key features of the artificial fish is that it is able to regulate the speed at which it moves its tail. It alters its tail beating by measuring how close or far off the live fish is. In their experiments, the scientists let the artificial tail beat either faster or slower when the real fish came closer. They showed that the fish prefer a robot that beats its tail faster when coming closer. In this case, the zebrafish remained in the vicinity of the robot for a longer period of time, compared to slow-beating scenarios. By revealing this preference, the researchers prove that they are capable of interaction with the zebrafish.

Practical use
Beating a tail faster or slower based on proximity of a real fish does not sound very useful. However, this proof-of-principle may help ecologists in their endeavours to preserve nature, by altering the behaviour of groups of animals. Introducing robot variants into the wild that steer a group into a particular direction may be highly beneficial, although it is likely more complex robots need to be developed first. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting novel approach to preservation.

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