Robot Fish to Aid Marine Biologists

The second generation of robotic fish developed in Maurizio Porfiri's Dynamical Systems Laboratory at Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Photo courtesy Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

National Science Foundation: Scientists have long turned to nature for inspiration and innovation. From unlocking the secrets of spider silk to create super-strong materials to taking hints from geckos for new adhesives, clues from the natural world often lead to advances in our practical world. But the relationship between engineering and nature has been largely one-directional, with humans reaping the majority of the benefits of discovery.

What if it was possible to close the loop, and combine human ingenuity and nature’s wisdom to protect a species or ecosystem?

Maurizio Porfiri, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, is one step closer to that goal through his research into the behavior of schooling fish, which is funded by a prestigious NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. Porfiri’s findings led him to create a series of biologically inspired robots that may help preserve and protect marine life.

“Studies of schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of animals have inspired robotic systems designed for our own applications,” said Porfiri. “But I wanted to see if I could close the gap, bringing some of those benefits back into the natural world.”

A lifelong animal lover who recalls childhood aspirations of becoming a zookeeper, Porfiri began his studies of fish schooling by examining how leadership is established within these populations. “Schooling fish have a rich system of information sharing,” explains Porfiri. “They decide when to school based on a wide variety of factors, including vision and pressure cues from other fish. By studying these cues, we can learn how school members recognize–and follow–a leader.”

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