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Robotic 'fish' take to seas to catch pollution sooner

Scientists have deployed fish aimed at detecting pollutants in the water at a cost of around $31,600 each. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

In a bid to track sea pollution by mimicking how fish navigate and work together, scientists on Tuesday moved their robotic fish from the lab to the sea.

The technology could reduce the time it takes to detect a pollutant from weeks to just seconds, the scientists said in a statement. It could also aid underwater security, diver monitoring and search and rescue efforts.

Partly funded by the European Union, the SHOAL Consortium deployed its test robots at the northern Spanish port of Gijon on Tuesday.

The fish -- 5 feet long and costing about $31,600 each -- are designed to swim like real fish and have sensors to pick up pollutants.


They swim independently but coordinate their actions and send data back to a shore station more than a half mile away.

"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," Luke Speller, a SHOAL scientist who led the project, said in the statement.

Through artificial intelligence software, the fish can avoid obstacles, map their location and return to base when their eight-hour batteries run low, SHOAL stated.

"Significantly," SHOAL added, "the robotic fish have been developed to blend into the marine environment in such a way that marine life is neither disrupted nor impacted in any negative way by their presence, but carries on naturally."

Courtesy SHOAL Consortium

The specimen is one of the robotic fish developed by the SHOAL Consortium.

So what happens if one is mistakenly caught by a fisherman? "The fish are able to detect where they are with the array of sensors they have," the researchers say on the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website. "As soon as they are removed from the water they set off a distress beacon that alerts the port authorities who can act immediately."

And why even design them to look like fish? They "have an incredibly small turning circle allowing them to navigate quickly in ports both to find pollution and avoid ships and the port infrastructure," the researchers added. "It's also low noise so as to not disturb the environment when outside of busy ports."

After testing this week, the team will make any modifications needed to move the fish into commercial production.

The project draws on expertise from the University of Essex and the University of Strathclyde in Britain; Ireland's Tyndall National Institute; and Thales Safare, part of Europe's largest defense electronics group.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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