Robotics has come a long way over the past year. We’ve had robot dolphins designed to be petted to protect wild dolphins from captivity; robots made of ice built to explore distant planets; and a robot dance party that was simply awesome. These robots could help explore even the most inhospitable places, and now a new robot has been unveiled with that aim – and it’s brought friends.
In a new study published in Science Robotics, a team of researchers has developed the world’s first synchronized shoal of fish-robots, that require no external control to move together as one unit. The bots are not only impressively realistic, they’re also pretty adorable too.
The team from Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have called their creation Blueswarm.
"Robots are often deployed in areas that are inaccessible or dangerous to humans, areas where human intervention might not even be possible," said Florian Berlinger, a PhD Candidate at SEAS and Wyss and first author of the paper, in a statement.
"In these situations, it really benefits you to have a highly autonomous robot swarm that is self-sufficient. By using implicit rules and 3D visual perception, we were able to create a system that has a high degree of autonomy and flexibility underwater where things like GPS and WiFi are not accessible."
Watch as the fish-bots form a circle swimming together below.
Seizure warning: the video below contains flashing lights.
Making robots that truly mimic schools of fish is no easy feat. Despite consisting of sometimes thousands of fish in a single group, they can collectively move and change direction as if they are of the same organism. They do this with no communication between them, instead using spatial awareness and the position of their co-swimmers to decide their next move. Therefore, the researchers not only needed to create autonomous robots that can happily swim around in a 3D medium, the robots also need to be aware of each other and coordinate their movements.
To achieve this, each Bluebot is equipped with two cameras and three blue LED lights. The cameras detect the presence of lights around them, and thus the presence of a Bluebot, and calculates their distance and direction.
"Each Bluebot implicitly reacts to its neighbors' positions," said Berlinger.
"So, if we want the robots to aggregate, then each Bluebot will calculate the position of each of its neighbors and move towards the center. If we want the robots to disperse, the Bluebots do the opposite. If we want them to swim as a school in a circle, they are programmed to follow lights directly in front of them in a clockwise direction. "
Although it is a tech in its infancy and currently an early prototype, the fish swarm could have many practical implications. A dispersed school of fish-bots could offer enhanced search capabilities than current tech, with a larger space covered in much shorter times.
The team now hopes the Blueswarm can be developed further into robots that can help monitor fragile ecosystems with minimal intrusion, a mission sorely needed as many coral reefs continue to decline.