Robofish to monitor pollution

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A shoal of robotic fish is to be released into the waters of Northern Spain to monitor pollution.

Five carp-shaped robots will be released into the port of Gijon in the Bay of Biscay in 2010 as part of a three year research project funded by the European Commission.

The fish, which have been developed by a team from Essex University and UK-based engineering consultancy BMT Group cost 20,000 each to make and have been designed to look and move in as life-like a way as possible in order to not disturb the marine wildlife.

Each robotic fish is about 1.5 metres long and can swim at a maximum speed of about one metre per second. They have tiny sensors which can detect fuel and other potentially hazardous chemicals and then relay the information to the shore.

Professor Huosheng Hu of Essex University said: " will be able to detect changes in environmental conditions in the port and pick up on early signs of pollution spreading, for example by locating a small leak in a vessel. The hope is that this will prevent potentially hazardous discharges at sea, as the leak would undoubtedly get worse over time if not located."

The fish have a battery life of around eight hours and can communicate with each other and a central control centre via WiFi. This will mean that the authorities will be able to produce a real-time map of the source and scale of any pollution.

Unlike previous robotic fish, these will be able to move around autonomously without any need to a remote control and will return automatically to the recharging hub when their battery runs low.

Rory Doyle, senior research scientist at BMT Group said: "While using shoals of robotic fish for pollution detection in harbours might appear like something straight out of science fiction, there are very practical reasons for choosing this form.

"In using robotic fish we are building on a design created by hundreds of millions of years' worth of evolution which is incredibly energy efficient. This efficiency is something we need to ensure that our pollution detection sensors can navigate in the underwater environment for hours on end."

A smaller version of the robofish was exhibited by Professor Hu in a special tank at London's aquarium in 2005. Hu said the new fish will have to be bigger to withstand higher water pressures and powerful Atlantic tides. And that they probably won t have the charm of their blue-and-silver aquarium-dwelling cousins.

"This project's more focused on robustness," Hu said. "Appearance doesn't have a high priority."

If successful, the European SHOAL project which is worth 2.5 million hopes that the fish will used in rivers, lakes and seas across the world, including Britain, to detect pollution.