Intelligent robo-fish that can find and identify pollution are being tested. It is hoped that the four-feet long yellow fish, which have been partly paid for by European Union funds, can be used to map and analyse pollution in ports and other waterways.
The £20,000 ($32,000) robot fish prototype that mimic the swimming motions of real fish are currently being tested in the waters of Northern Spain. Each robo-fish knows where to go, takes and records samples and their locations and identifies their chemical make-up, as well as keeping in communication with the base station.
Luke Speller is the Project Leader of the pan-European ICT project, SHOAL and Senior Research Scientist at technology consultants BMT Group. He says, "SHOAL has introduced the capability of cutting the detection and analysis of pollutants in sea water time from weeks to just a few seconds.
"Chemical sensors fitted to the fish permit real-time in-situ analysis, rather than the current method of sample collection and dispatch to a shore based laboratory.
"Furthermore, the Artificial Intelligence which has been introduced means that the fish can identify the source of pollution enabling prompt and more effective remedial action."
The robo-fish contain a range of sensors so they can safely navigate the waters. They use artificial intelligence to overcome multiple challenges, such as negotiating obstacles, locating the source of pollution, communicating with other robo-fish and going back to base when it needs to be recharged after around eight hours.
The robo-fish are designed so they don't disturb other marine creatures or the environment. They work in teams so they can autonomously explore the waters and track down pollution sources.
A team of European scientists has been working on the SHOAL project. Mr Speller says the collaboration has helped bring about the development of robots from the laboratory to the rough seas, which has been one of its biggest achievements.
SHOAL is made up of six European organisations including: BMT Group, which lead the project and handles artificial intelligence; the University of Essex, which deals with robotic Development; the Tyndall National Institute, which is responsible for chemical sensors; the University of Strathclyde that oversees hydrodynamic research; Thales Safare, which handles the communication network and the Port Authority of Gijon, in North Spain, where the robo-fish have been tested.
Ian Dukes, of the University of Essex, says the group resembles the hydrodynamic shape of real fish, which means they are able to quickly change direction. Using artificial fins rather than propellers means they are able to travel through weedy waters.
In the future, once prototypes are fully tested and developed, he hopes that a full commercial system will be a possibility.
It is estimated that the cost of water pollution in England and Wales alone costs £1.3billion a year, says the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs.