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Robots That Swim With The Fishes, Intentionally

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Watch the Science Friday video of the robots swimming.

Based on mathematical models of the movement of fish, Maurizio Porfiri, engineering professor at Polytechnic Institute of NYU, built a robofish. When Porfiri let the robot go for a dip in the lab pool, the real fish started to mill about the robot and even follow it around.


Time now for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman is our multimedia editor - is here. And I'm looking on my paper, it says, robofish.

FLORA LICHTMAN: That's right, Ira.

FLATOW: Robofish.

LICHTMAN: Robofish.

FLATOW: Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun. Not a shark.

LICHTMAN: We're bringing "Jaws" in every week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Shark week, shark month on Science...

LICHTMAN: It's always shark week on Science Friday.

FLATOW: Tell us about what robofish is.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it's an unusual robot. It's a fish about the size of your hand, and it's designed, really designed to swim with the fishes. This is a robot that's made...

FLATOW: That's a different movie. That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Yeah, right? So the designer is Maurizio Porfiri...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...and he's an engineer at NYU Poly here in New York.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And he studies movement, basically, using math. And so he's looked at fish schooling and tried to understand how fish school by making these complex mathematical models. And then he takes those sophisticated models and tries to turn them into, you know, devices, objects.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So he made this little robotic fish. And here's the most amazing part of the story. So he makes this little robotic fish - and you can see it on the website, swimming around. And on his birthday, they stick it in the lab swimming pool, in the tank, and they put in some golden shiners. And this is just sort of for fun. And they noticed something kind of surprising happening, which was that when they put the robot in and turns it on - it's remote controlled - the little fish started sort of milling about the robot and they even followed it around the tank.

FLATOW: Like its leader, like a school of fish following the robofish around.

LICHTMAN: Following the robo leader. Now, there's, you know...

FLATOW: They didn't expect that?

LICHTMAN: They didn't really know...

FLATOW: They just did it as a prank and they learned something...

LICHTMAN: I mean, I don't know if it was a prank or not. I mean...


LICHTMAN: ...the idea is to build robots that are biomimetic...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...that are like fish. But I think the - what's different about this research is that they build this biomimetic robot and then they put it back in with the biological system and saw what happened. And they're not biologists...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: they're not making any great claims...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...that this is - they understand what makes a fish a leader.

FLATOW: A bunch of engineers building a robot.

LICHTMAN: But they did say, well, you know, we did notice this sort of strange thing happening, which is that, you know, some percentage of the time the fish will follow it around.

FLATOW: And you can see that. It's very fascinating. Go to our website at, our Video Pick of the Week up there in the left corner. And you can just click on this video, and there's a little fish coming - the robot, and the fish are following it around.

LICHTMAN: And then, you know...

FLATOW: It's almost like they're imprinting on the robot.

LICHTMAN: It's a little creepy, I think...


LICHTMAN: There's something sort of surprising about it. But I think what they're going to keep doing is building sort of different versions of this robot to try to understand what about it makes it attractive...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: the fish that they're working with.

FLATOW: I guess they should bring some fishologists in or, you know...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I think they have - eventually, the idea will be to collaborate.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...with people who know a lot about fish behavior.

FLATOW: And do they have just one robot fish or...

LICHTMAN: No, they have several, actually.


LICHTMAN: They just developed a new one, which is a little bit noisier. It can move faster. It's built for more challenging terrain than the lab swimming pool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: So the idea is that...

FLATOW: Upstream, it's going to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Right - to take fish away from the dam. I mean, the idea is actually that maybe you could use robotic fish to lead fish away from dangers like...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: oil spill, for example.

FLATOW: Or into the open net of a fisherman.

LICHTMAN: You know, they didn't mention that, but I - that's right. This could be a boon for fishing. It's sort of a remote control lure. Come to me.

FLATOW: All right. Now, we've got the commercial side of this figured out. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Flora Lichtman, the Video Pick of the Week. It's robofish up there on our website at It's great little video. And it's kind of interesting to see how these engineers came up with this fish that actually acts more like a fish than they thought it would.

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