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Dr. Maurizio Porfiri, Polytechnic Institute of New York University – Robotic Fish

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Maurizio Porfiri of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University reveals how robotic fish can be used to influence the movement of schools of fish.

Maurizio Porfiri is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University where his research interests include dynamical systems theory, the mechanics of advanced materials, and smart materials and structures. He holds a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

About Dr. Porfiri

Dr. Maurizio Porfiri – Robotic Fish

Our research started with the question: what makes a natural leader? When we look at animals that behave collectively like birds, or in this case, schools of fish, it’s clear that some members of the group lead, and others follow. We know surprisingly little about what designates a leader in these groups, but our experiments using robotic fish may bring us closer to some answers.

Biologists have observed that fish can reduce their tail beat frequency when following other fish, thus spending less energy to swim. Using nature as our inspiration, we created a robotic fish and introduced it into the school. We designed the robot with a tail capable of producing a very lifelike style of swimming. At first, we allowed the robot to remain still, and not surprisingly, the school paid it very little attention.

When we instructed the robot to begin swimming with a tail beat frequency similar to the one of real fish, the school began to respond. Some fish slowed their own tail beats and gathered behind the robotic leader. The fish didn’t seem affected by the fact that the robot was a very different size and shape—we believe the robot was able to establish leadership by recreating the sensory, rather than visual, cues that schools respond to in nature.

Understanding how to influence collective animal behavior could have a profound impact on environmental protection and disaster recovery efforts. It’s possible that we could design robots capable of steering fish and birds away from hazardous environments during an oil or chemical spill, or away from structural dangers such as dams. We are just beginning to tap the potential for robots interacting with live animals.

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