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“With these patrolling fish we will be able to obtain information at an unprecedentedly high spatial and temporal resolution. They allow us to get a much better picture of water quality.”

We look to our doctors for early detection of health problems. But to whom should we turn when it comes to monitoring the health of our water supplies? One answer: robotic fish being created and tested by a dynamic duo of MSU researchers.

Engineering assistant professor Xiaobo Tan and zoology assistant professor Elena Litchman are integrating their research and collaborating on a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to monitor the world’s waters and what lurks in their depths.

The pair is working to develop schools of robotic fish that communicate wirelessly to provide researchers and resource managers with a steady flow of water quality data. The fish will carry sensors that record temperature and oxygen levels and detect pollutants and harmful algae to provide a more consistent level of data collection than has previously been possible.

“With these patrolling fish we will be able to obtain information at an unprecedentedly high spatial and temporal resolution,” says Litchman, who notes that testing water usually requires researchers to go out on boats. “It’s time consuming and expensive. These fish allow us to get a much better picture.”

Tan’s robotic fish is distinctive in its similarity to a real fish. The fins mimic real muscle tissue using electroactive polymers that change shape when electricity is applied. The engineer’s team also is examining novel designs to enable energy-efficient operation of the robotic fish.

The fish could play an important role in Great Lakes restoration efforts—a high-priority component of MSU’s comprehensive commitment to understanding, protecting, and restoring water resources and their sustainable use. As part of this commitment, interdisciplinary scientific teams of faculty and students investigate solutions to current and future environmental problems in water systems around the globe.

As it contributes to this deepening body of knowledge about critical water supplies and habitats, MSU’s little robotic fish promises to bring environmental monitoring to a whole new level. spartan shield

Keeping the world's water healthy

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