Massive oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster last year – or the ongoing disaster along the Niger Delta – are fortunately rare. But smaller scale ocean pollution isn’t, and collectively it adds up to cause enough damage to alter ecosystems and affect fish stocks. A key to protecting the oceans (and the ecosystems and industries that live there) is collecting regular data on pollution levels to help target clean-up efforts. But given the scale of the world’s oceans, how can we monitor them effectively and cheaply?
Dr. Huosheng Hu of the University of Essex has a rather elegant solution: setting loose a fleet of robotic fish to continually monitor water quality, without the costly man-hours of sending marine scientists out on boats. Like Cesar Harada, the drone sailboat fleet builder, Huosheng’s working towards a future where artificially-intelligent, self-sustaining robots swim alongside their living brethren, continually sending data about water conditions via wireless signals to collection points on shore.
These robots aren’t sci-fi. Under a $3.6 million grant from the European Union, a school of Huosheng’s five-foot long battery-powered fish are cruising through the Spanish port of Gijon. The fish are intelligent enough to avoid run-ins with ships, and are able to communicate with each other via a kind of digital ‘sonar’ to help coordinate their efforts. All the while they transmit data from different depths and locations, offering a three-dimensional picture of Gijon’s water quality. And near the end of their eight-hour battery capacity, they automatically swim back to a charging hub to prepare for their next stint.
In the fifth episode of our Upgrade! series, Motherboard visits Dr. Huosheng Hu’s lab in England. Huosheng talks to us about artificial intelligence, imagines how biomimicry can provide promising solutions to the world’s environmental problems, and discusses his curious love for fish, the robot ones but also the old kind too. -by Derek Mead