Fish sense organ is key to improving underwater robots’ navigation skills – Zoo House News

Fish sense organ is key to improving underwater robots’ navigation skills – Zoo House News

  • Science
  • January 26, 2023
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Scientists led by the University of Bristol have studied a fish sensory organ to understand clues about collective behavior that could be applied to underwater robots.

This work focused on the lateral line sensing organ in African cichlids, but found in almost all fish species, which allows them to sense and interpret the water pressure around them with enough acuity to detect external influences such as neighboring fish and changes in water flow to detect predators and obstacles.

The entire lateral line system is distributed over the head, body and tail of the fish. It consists of mechanoreceptors (neuromasts) located either in subdermal canals or on the skin’s surface.

Lead author Elliott Scott, from the University of Bristol’s Department of Engineering Mathematics, explained: “We were trying to find out whether the different regions of the lateral line – the lateral line on the head versus the lateral line on the body, or the different types of lateral line sensor units, such as those on the Skin versus those beneath play different roles in how the fish can perceive its surroundings through ambient pressure measurements.

“We did this in a novel way, using hybrid fish that allowed variation to be created naturally.”

They discovered that the lateral line system around the head has the most important impact on how well fish can swim in a school. Meanwhile, the presence of more lateral line sensor units, neuromasts, located under the skin causes fish to swim closer together, while a larger presence of neuromasts on the skin causes fish to swim farther apart.

In simulations, the researchers were able to show how the mechanisms behind the lateral line are applicable not only to the tiny scales of real fish, but also to larger scales. This could inspire a novel, easy-to-manufacture pressure sensor for underwater robotics, especially swarm robotics where cost is a big factor.

Elliott said, “These results provide a better understanding of how lateral line affects schooling behavior of fish, while contributing to a novel design of a low-cost pressure sensor that could be useful for underwater robots that need to navigate in dark or murky environments.”

The team now plans to further develop the sensor and integrate it into a robotic platform to help a robot navigate underwater and demonstrate its effectiveness.

Research for this paper was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP).

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