Amazon Electric Fish Inspires Underwater Robot Designs

EVANSTON, Ill., Feb. 15 (UPI) --
Studying fish movements may lead to underwater vehicles to study coral reefs, repair deep-sea oil rigs or investigate sunken ships, U.S. researchers say.

The weakly electric black ghost knifefish of the Amazon basin has inspired a research team led by Northwestern University robotics expert Malcolm MacIver to develop agile fish robots, the university reported Saturday.

The knifefish hunts at night in the murky rivers of the Amazon basin using closely integrated sensing and movement systems, combing the unique ability to sense with a self-generated weak electric field around its entire body and both horizontally (forward and backward) as well as vertically using a ribbon-like fin on the underside of its body.

Electrosense and ribbon fin technology into a fish robot should result in a vehicle capable of navigating complex 3-D geometries in murky waters, tasks that are impossible with current underwater vehicles, MacIver said.

"Our technology for working in water is not very advanced," said MacIver, who has studied the black ghost knifefish for two decades. "Current underwater vehicles are large and lack agility, which means that working close to living or man-made structures is nearly impossible."

MacIver and his colleagues in Northwestern's Neuroscience and Robotics Lab have developed more than half a dozen robots based on the knifefish.

"We've taken lessons learned from the knifefish about movement and non-visual sensing and developed new technologies that should improve underwater vehicles," he said.


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