Can Robot Fish Short Circuit Ocean Predators?

A just-published study sheds light on the behavioral interactions between robots and animals.
Robotic fish could help their real-world counterparts swim toward a safer future. (Courtesy of Polytechnic Institute of New York University)
Nov 22, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Although he was trained as an engineer in both Italy and the United States—and earned bachelor, master, and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mechanics—Maurizio Porfiri has always been drawn to animals.

“Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by animal behavior and interested in understanding fundamental principles of animal communication and locomotion,” he told TakePart. “When I started my career as a professor, I wanted to bring together my technical skills with my personal interests and decided to focus on the emerging field of ethorobotics, that is, the intersection of robotics and ethology. This growing area has great potential to improve our understanding of animal behavior as well as developing new technology to aid conservation and protection methods.”

This week, ScienceDaily reported that Porfiri, who is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NYU-Poly—and doctoral candidates Vladislav Kopman and Jeffrey Laut, along with research scholar Giovanni Polverino—has just completed a study that sheds more light on the interactions between bioinspired robots and live animal counterparts.

MORE: Pollution-Hunting Robofish to the Undersea Rescue

The researchers’ findings, which have been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, examined the role of real-time feedback in attracting or repelling live zebrafish in the presence of a robotic fish.

Using image-based tracking software to analyze the movement of the zebrafish, they were able to demonstrate which robotic movements increased the zebrafish's attraction to the robot. “The [software’s] algorithm detects the location of the fish in the test tank and classifies fish behavior by using a combination of color and movement-based tracking,” Porfiri explained.

“The location of the fish for each captured frame was determined by comparing each frame with a static background image acquired prior to the experiment. To attenuate noise, filtering was sometimes applied to the image with a resolution to smoothen noise and improve tracking speed. The classification of fish behavior was executed based on the motion of the subject in the test tank.”

ScienceDaily noted the results showed that the “zebrafish were most attracted to the robotic member when its tail beating motion replicated the behavior of ‘informed fish’ . . . When the robotic fish increased its tail beat frequency as a live fish approached, the zebrafish were likeliest to spend time near the robot.”

The potential for the real-life applications that could emerge from ethorobotics research, and help keep animals or marine groups away from danger, are pretty cool.

“In the future, robotic fish could be deployed in the environment to serve as leaders for fish schools to guide animals away from polluted regions and turbine blades of hydropower plants, and help them migrate in safer routes,” said Porfiri. “I expect in the future that robots will be used as ‘sheepdogs’ for bringing fish to safety.”

What are some of the other potential applications you can envision coming out of ethorobotics research?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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