Robot Fish Could One Day Conquer Seas

That progress makes it possible for Morgansen's fish to accomplish what might seem like a pretty simple task at this point. They can either swim together, or swim in different directions. So it's not yet ready for prime time, but it's a significant advance. They are also able to do some tracking.

In the future, she said, her swarm could include different fish with different capabilities, thus broadening their application. It could be a school of hundreds, but the problems get tougher as the numbers go up.

"It will take longer for them to converge on the answer (where is that submarine?) because they have to exchange that much more information," she said. "There are going to be limits in what is computationally feasible," and they will need a better source of power than the hobby-shop batteries that are used now.

And she still has to return to nature for more info. Morgansen and her colleagues trained some live fish to respond to a stimulus by swimming to a feeding area. It turns out that all the fish don't have to know what to do. Some apparently are leaders, others followers, so if even a few of the fish knew it was time to head for the lunch counter, all of them made it.

"That has implications for what will happen in a group of vehicles," she said. "Can one vehicle make the rest of the group do something just based on its behavior?"

Her robofish suggest that's most likely the case. Some of the fish received only about half of the data that was sent, but they were still able to accomplish their task of swimming together, or swimming apart.

In a couple weeks, Morgansen and her students will give their robofish a serious challenge. They will be asked to track a remote controlled toy shark, like the ones available in the toy section of your neighborhood mall.

It will be a modest test of their tracking abilities. Really modest in the beginning because of the size of the tub in Morgansen's lab.

"We probably will not have enough room," she said. "That's the reason we have just three of them. We will try to get into the university's swimming pool."

She's not yet ready to try her luck in nearby Lake Washington.

"We know we can keep them from leaking at eight feet, but there's not been much done to optimize them for anything deeper than that," she said. "And the lake is really, really deep. They are a little expensive and difficult to replace, so we don't want to lose any of them."

But some day, no doubt, the seas will be their oyster.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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