Robofish research vehicle to help track living fish and their habitats

By on October 1, 2014

Though you wouldn’t ever want to reel in a robofish, the waterborne contraption developed at Michigan State may help better conditions for some of the fish that you do want. The device is similar to an underwater glider in the way it moves through water, and has already been employed in studies looking at harmful algae in inland lakes.

Looking forward, and armed with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, extensive updates are planned for the robofish platform. Researchers are looking to build a fleet of 10 that can be used in a range of scientific endeavors, including fish tracking, habitat improvement and the fight against invasive species.

“The current prototype only communicates with a laptop when the robot is on the surface of the water,” said Xiaobo Tan, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university who leads the robofish project. “We’d like to exchange information more quickly and it’s sometimes not feasible for robots to surface.”

To solve that issue, acoustic communication capabilities will be added to the platform so that robofish can coordinate movements underwater. Smartphones may also be integrated, Tan says, as a way to give each one access to data storage in the cloud and extra computational power. Integrating the tech shouldn’t be that difficult.

“The technology of the robot itself is independent of application,” said Tan. “Robofish is the carrier, the platform, and we have designed it in a way where we can swap sensors for different applications.”

Students at work on the robofish before testing in Wintergreen Lake (Credit: Xiaobo Tan)

Students at work on the robofish before testing in Wintergreen Lake (Credit: Xiaobo Tan)

So with changeable parts, researchers can measure important environmental parameters affecting fish, like the presence of blue-green algae, dissolved oxygen concentrations, light levels and water temperature. The improvements and acoustic capabilities will be used to study fish like Great Lakes trout and walleye.

Typical fish tracking involves stationary receivers that register the locations of fish when they swim by. Researchers want to refine that positioning accuracy by using multiple robots that can hear pings and interpret the locations of fish more precisely. Then the devices can be moved in advance to keep fish on the radar. The idea, Tan says, is to gather more data on fish behavior.

“We want to learn how fish move through water for days or weeks. We hope to understand their spawning behavior and daily routines,” said Tan. “Then managers can adjust accordingly.”

So if one type of fish is living in an area, managers will know where to focus habitat improvement efforts for that species. Likewise, Tan says, if robofish can see where invasive sea lampreys are and where they go, traps can be set up in the right places to catch them.

Testing for the updated platform will be conducted in Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay.

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