On June 12 2014, Warren Tarboton, a mechatronics engineering student from Curtin University, stood by the Bentley campus Koi pond holding a robotic fish the size of an A4 sheet of paper, ready to let the robot swim with live fish for the first time.
As Warren placed his fish into the pond the other fish darted away, but in a matter of minutes, the koi fish carried on with their normal behaviour and swimming patterns – seemingly unfazed.
The robotic fish, or as Warren calls it, The fish, was created for Warren’s fourth year thesis project. With the help of three 3D printers, each printing with a different, speciality plastic, Warren was able to create the ‘skeleton’, fins and the internal mechanisms of the fish. The external ‘skin’ of the fish was made out of silicon, resulting in a milky white body with electric blue fins.
Although the robotic fish may not look like an authentic fish to the naked eye, when placed in the water its movements are near identical to a live fish.
But outside of novelty factors, why create a robotic fish?
“A lot of robotic fish just swim around their local environmental and don’t interact with the local fish population’, says Warren, “But I thought, ‘what if a robot could interact with the local fish?’ ”
Warren created his robot to emulate the shape and movements of black bream, which are endemic to the rivers and estuaries around Perth.
Because of its lifelike movements and appearance underwater, the robotic fish has the ability to blend in with shoals of real fish, enabling the user to monitor local fish to better understand the effects of environmental conditions such as algae blooms and water contamination indicators.
Warren’s research led him to a unique behavioral attribute of fish, stating that “if a fish mimics the speed and coloring patterns of another fish population, those fish will tend to follow the mimicking fish.” Keeping in mind that the external silicon mold of Warren’s fish could be changed to emulate the colouring patterns of a variety of fish species, the potential uses of robotic fish are endless, from research to fish herding.
Warren also noted that his fish is probably the fastest fish for its size, swimming at 3 body lengths per second, which is almost double the speed of other known prototypes. At the moment it can swim forward, change its speed and turn left and right. There are plans to further develop the fish to include external sensors which would enhance its information gathering potential.
So what’s next for Warren? At the moment, he’s focused on passing his final exams and securing a job.