Ecocentric

Can Robo-Fish Rescue Polluted Water?

With oceans still reeling from 2010's oil spill and shipping traffic expected to double by 2020, the pollution-scouting robot fish makes its seaside debut at just the right time

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In the future, robots will not only replace caregivers and make sushi, but they’ll also lend a hand offshore. According to Reuters, a team of European scientists at the University of Essex developed a robo-fish to monitor pollution in waterways. Setting the prototype loose for the first time on Tuesday in Gijón, a northern Spanish port, developers say the “fish” can practically report pollutants in real time.

First showcased at London’s aquarium in 2005, today’s larger version is built to withstand Atlantic currents and high water pressure. Backed by a $3.6 million grant from the E.U., the developers of the 1.5-m-long model hope the robo-fish can offer a more accurate assessment of water conditions. If the prototype proves successful, the roboticists intend to sell the fish, which cost roughly $30,000 each, to port authorities, water companies, aquariums — any organization charged with monitoring water quality.

“The design of fish that nature has produced is a very energy-efficient one,” Rory Doyle, one of the project’s researchers, told CBS. “The fish’s efficiency is created by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Submarines come nowhere near it.” As the BBC explains, once the robo-fish detects pollution, it uses artificial intelligence to identify the source. When it surfaces, the fish then uses wi-fi to send a report back to port authorities. Like their flesh-and-blood counterparts, the robo-fish can communicate with one another through sensors and a form of sonar.

(MORE: New Study Asks Who’s to Blame When Robots Harm Us)

With oceans still reeling from 2010’s oil spill and shipping traffic expected to double by 2020, the swimming jury could not have come at a better time. One of the world’s most polluting industries, shipping significantly influences the quality of the ocean and air. According to the Guardian, the shipping industry accounts for 18% to 30% of the world’s nitrogen-oxide pollution and 9% of sulfur oxide.

Research shows that just one of the roughly 90,000 cargo ships traveling the world’s oceans pours out the equivalent amount of asthma- and cancer-inducing chemicals as 50 million cars, while the world’s 15 largest ships discharge the same amount of pollution as 760 million cars. “Ship pollution affects the health of communities in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet pollution from ships remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system,” James Corbett, a University of Delaware professor of marine policy and co-author of the report, told the Guardian.

Propelled in part by reports in 2009 that cargo ships led to 60,000 premature deaths annually, and cost a hefty $330 billion in U.S. health care alone, a number of countries — including the U.S., Canada and Singapore — and the E.U. have already imposed relatively stringent regulations, creating low-emission marine zones. However, as China and other emerging Asian nations lacking rigorous safeguards increase their shipping capacities, emissions are expected to increase dramatically over the next decade. If no action to control pollution is taken, the International Maritime Organization estimates that emissions could rise by 72% by 2020. Such increases could have grave implications for seaside dwellers as well as marine creatures.

While the primary purpose for the robo-fish at this point is to monitor water pollution, that’s not all the roboticists have planned. As the technology becomes more refined, they hope to eventually harness schools of robo-fish task forces to aid in oil-spill cleanups, monitor dives or search and rescue at sea.

MORE: Robot That Connects to Neurons Could Provide Key to Understanding the Human Brain

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