May 28, 2012      

If you are a harbormaster, you?ve got to be impressed with the capabilities?and price?of the recently announced pollution-detecting robotic fish. Harbors, even small ones, pay in the low-six figures for human divers to test for pollutants?during which none produce real-time data.

Rather, it?s off to the lab for a look-see at the samples, while precious time and opportunity are wasted. A small, yellow robotic fish is in the process of changing all that and at a fraction of the cost of human harbor testing, all the while providing real-time data as it patrols.

Robotics Business Review?s Emmet Cole took a look behind the scenes at what the near-term future holds for this robotic fish. In an exclusive interview, Cole got wind of new applications already in the works for the aquatic jack of all trades. Here?s his report:

Researchers on the SHOAL project to create a pollution-detecting robotic fish are testing new applications that could enable the robotic fish to do much more than detect pollution.

Robo fish schematic

The new applications include security and defense missions, from port security through potentially protecting ships against terrorists,cargo pirates, underwater and surface-borne threats.

At the same time, the team is developing a pollution cleanup capability and working out the best strategy to commercialize the robot, with interest in a commercial version growing.

?We’re currently working on an underwater detection system for port security, detecting threats like hostile submarines and divers… any sort of terrorism, bombs, or anyone trying to get to a ship or port,? explains Luke Speller, SHOAL project lead, and senior research scientist from UK-based engineering consultancy, BMT Group.

The team is also investigating the best way of fitting the robot with sonar technology to help protect ships on the open ocean ?technology that could be used to protect vessels against pirates.

?You can use static sonars, of course, in certain areas, but it’s a lot harder to make static sonar effective at sea. Our fish can track people down in the water, so they can’t hide around the corner [out of static sonar range]. Once the fish has got a lock on a target they can call the other fish over to track down and identify the threat,? explains Speller.

Diver detection testing has already begun with some divers at Spain?s northern Port of Gijon on the Bay of Biscay, with positive initial results.

?It’s very early stages. We can detect the divers but now we’re looking at filtering and tracking and doing it in environments where there’s a lot more noise around to deal with,? says Speller.

The underwater diving detection system will undergo sea trials in 2014.

SHOAL robotic fish

For pollution cleanup, the team is investigating ways in which the robot could be used for skimming–a cleaning technique in which a mix of oil and water is absorbed into a device, separated, and water released back into the ocean.

Each fish cost about $31,600 to build, says Speller, but that figure includes ?building the mold, the parts which we bought and then replaced when they went wrong in various situations.?

?Of course, if we were to mass produce the robots it would become cheaper as with any economy of scale. That said, the cost to consumer will still be a lot cheaper than your Remus’ and your Autosubs which are going into $300,000-type prices,? says Speller.

The business case for the robotic fish is good, says Speller. The Port of Gijon alone spends more than $157,000 each year just on paying divers to take pollution readings each month. By contrast, running costs for the robotic fish are low, with a full battery charge costing about $1 and each chemical sensor costing just a few cents.

?Compared to the price of hiring a diver, a boat, and a lab to do the results, we’re talking multiple amounts cheaper. If the port were to send this robot into the water once a month, it would cost about $1.50 a month instead of $157,000 per year,? says Speller.

The part EU-funded SHOAL consortium –which consists of a mix of academic and commercial entities–is currently discussing whether to develop a spin-off company or to commercialize the robot through an existing consortium member.

?We’re discussing exactly what the percentage of ownership is and trying to strike a balance between the amount of risks each partner is taking versus the amount of potential profit they’re going to get from it,? says Speller.

If one company takes charge, the other entities will reduce their risk and earn revenue through royalties.

?If a spin-off company is created however, everyone will have to put in some capital to start it up. This spreads the risks out between the partners but also spreads out the potential profit,? explains Speller.

Commercialization–including setting up the manufacturing and supply lines–is expected to take about 18-24 months.

As queries about the availability of the robot continue to arrive from water companies, ports, and other marine interests, this looks like one robot that won’t slip through the net.