The Undersea Pied Piper

Professor develops robots to lead fish from peril.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it’s impossible to calculate how many fish were killed by the 2010 BP Horizon oil spill. What is known is the pollution has particularly threatened species such as the endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna. The Gulf of Mexico is an important spawning ground for the fish.

Imagine if shortly after the disaster the U.S. Army could have sent a fleet of sleek robots to convince the Atlantic bluefins to follow them out to sea and out of harm’s way.

FishIgor Belykh, associate professor of applied mathematics, is working on a grant from the U.S. Army research office to develop robotic fish tasked with the mission of attracting live fish to lead them from disasters such as oil spills.

“You see animals suffering from the oil spill, and that is our inspiration, trying to save their lives,” Belykh said. “Technology has come so far, and maybe we could have done more to help them. I’d like to see if robots could make a difference and stop something like this from happening again.”

Belykh and his team at Georgia State have joined forces with researchers New York University on the project.

Fish could be saved from any number of perils, from oil spills to the spinning blades of underwater turbine systems used by power plants.

Belykh and his team have built the robots and have had success attracting real schools of fish.

“The biological problem is to find the right size, the right color and the right frequency of the tail movement to make the fish believe that this guy can be a leader and they would like to follow it,” he said.

Belykh says ensuring the robots move in the same coordinated manner yet perform complex maneuvers is also challenging.

“It’s a very deep mathematical problem,” he said. “They need to perform very complicated maneuvers and keep the platoon or the crowd as a whole.”

Belkyh is also using the grant to develop communications for multi-robot flying teams to fly in formation in hostile environments, for example.