A robot for the deep

Scientists in the US have developed a device that would help search toxic wastes at seabed

Published: Saturday 15 November 1997

-- robot fish could soon be searching the ocean floor for hazardous chemicals. Researchers at the University of Central Florida, usa, have developed the Micro Electronic Fish Robot (mefir) that would be used for studying aquatic life. The 0.6 m long robot has been designed to look and move like fish. Researchers are hopeful of making the robot look like almost any type of underwater creature after performing slight modifications.

The mefir will have an artificial-intelligence software to provide it a high degree of autonomy. According to them, nearly 30 such machines could work together on a mission. The robot has been powered by solar batteries and in case the power runs short, It would automatically return to the water's surface to recharge itself. To propel itself through water, the mefir uses a 30 cm tail made of a specially developed shape-changing metal.

When an electric current is passed through the metal, it contracts, sending the tail one way. Once the current is switched off, the metal returns to its original shape. A computer fitted with the robot controls this movement, replicating the tail movement of real fish. The shape-changing metal helps the robot in operating silently in the water.

Researchers have always faced problems while studying the marine life. Whenever, one tries to get near to any kind of underwater life, he usually frightens creatures. However, the shape of mefir resembles a fish and it can easily reach very close to a creature and investigate them properly.

A variety of sensors can be placed in the robot's body. The modular unit of the robot makes it feasible to have a video camera or satellite tracking system on board. The mefir has been designed in such a way that it can carry out missions without any human intervention. The robot can remain underwater for months to perform scientific studies or carry out reconnaissance for the military. Now, researchers are developing a version so that live video pictures could be sent to the surface.

The manufacturers are hopeful that the robot could be used by next year. Its first mission will be to search for toxic chemical spills in rivers, lakes and the sea. Shoals of nearly 30 robots will be fitted with chemical sensors, allowing them to analyse water for traces of toxic material.

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