The Researcher Who Chases Drunk Fish with Robots

Maurizio Porfiri is engineering a better robot fish.

​Describing what Maurizio Porfiri does on a day-to-day basis is pretty easy: He feeds zebrafish alcohol and/or caffeine, then chases them around with a robotic predator fish he's designed in his lab.

His work, of course, is actually much more nuanced than that, and much more complicated. He's a roboticist, but his lab also studies animal behavior—the key is figuring out how animals react when they're faced with robots.

Porfiri specializes in zebrafish, ​a small fish that's almost exclusively used as a model organism for scientific research, like mice or rats. When researchers are testing out new drugs for possible use on humans, they'll often start on zebrafish, to see how the drug affects biochemistry and, importantly, behavior.

Dr. Porfiri. Image: Imran Hafiz

Studying the effects of a drug usually requires stressing the fish out with a predator fish—but predatory fish don't always behave the same in a laboratory environment, which makes judging the zebrafish response difficult.

And that's where Porfiri comes in. He's been designing both robotic zebrafish and robotic predatory fish that behave exactly as the researcher wants them to. The initial goal is to create robot fish that can be used in labs around the world, to make zebrafish experiments more reliable. But the eventual goal is to create a robotic fish that's durable enough to survive in the ocean. In the future, if there's an oil spill or an environmental disaster, Porfiri hopes to be able to deploy his robot fish to drive marine life away from the threat.

Earlier this month, we visited Porfiri at his lab at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering, where he designs and builds these 3D-printed robots. They're surprisingly easy to operate using an iPad app, which makes them good to take around to schools and aquariums in New York City to teach students about robotics and ecology. And, who knows? Maybe one day, Porfiri's robotic schools of fish will swim alongside real ones.

A robotic zebrafish and the app the lab designed. Image: Imran Hafiz

Author and a graduate student tear down a robot fish. Image: Imran Hafiz