A Robotic Fish Designed To Mimic Abilities Of Amazonian Electric Knifefish

By Ajit Jha on February 16, 2014 5:16 PM EST

knifefish
The Amazon's electric black ghost knifefish is able to swim in many different directions with the help of a special fin. It's also able to use a self-generated electric field to sense its surroundings. Now, researchers are trying to develop a robotic fish that's able to mimic these abilities. (Photo: Derek Ramsey, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The weakly electric black ghost knifefish, which is usually found in the Amazon basin, has inspired a team of scientists from Northwestern University to develop robotic fish capable of performing a number of tasks including the investigation of sunken ships, repairing damaged deep-sea oil rigs, and researching fragile coral reefs.  

The team developing the robotic fish was led by Malcolm MacIver, an associate professor of mechanical and of biomedical engineering at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. He has studied black ghost knifefish for over two decades, putting his expertise in robotics and biology to work in consulting positions for several science-fiction movies, such as Tron: Legacy and Terminator: Genesis, according to phys.org.

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Technological innovations in robotics have helped scientists design robotic marine animals in the past. For example, they've made robotic fish able to track pollutants in water by mimicking how fish navigate and work together, thereby cutting the time it takes to do the task from weeks to seconds. However, MacIver admits that the current underwater technology is still not advanced enough. "Current underwater vehicles are large and lack agility, which means that working close to living or humanmade structures is nearly impossible," he said in a press release. "We've taken lessons learned from the knifefish about movement and non-visual sensing, and developed new technologies that should improve underwater vehicles."  

Several characteristics from the black ghost knifefish inspired the scientists. Its movement and sensing systems are closely integrated. Because they are weakly electric, they have the ability to sense things around them using a self-generated electric field. The fish can also swim in different directions - backward, forward, horizontal and vertical - with the aid of a ribbon-like fin on its underside  

MacIver and his team have already created several robots that mimic the knifefish at Northwestern's Neuroscience and Robotics Lab. They are currently working to get a better insight into the role its nervous system plays in accessing information and generating movements. Their ongoing research may likely result in the development of a technologically superior vehicle capable of navigating underwater in complex 3-D geometries, even in murky water - current underwater vehicles do not have these capabilities.  

The research into developing the robotic knifefish study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago on Saturday.

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