Spotlight TEDx Talk: The mission to create robots that guide fish out of danger

Engineer Maurizio Porfiri with his fish robot at TEDxSMU

Engineer Maurizio Porfiri with his fish robot at TEDxSMU

Engineer Maurizio Porfiri wants to protect fish from man-made dangers by infiltrating their social circles. He and his team of researchers draw inspiration from the schooling behavior of fish to develop robots to manipulate these schools, leading fish away from toxic oil spills and sharp, hydro-powered turbines.

“What I would like to do is close the loop between nature and technology through robotics,” he says in a talk at TEDxSMU. “I would like to develop robots that are inspired by nature … to assist it or even to understand it better.”

Porfiri’s robots are based on the tiny zebrafish, a type of minnow that is extremely social and disposed to gather in schools, he says, even with other species of fish. They will school with any other fish, he says, “as long as they look like them.”

The tropical zebrafish

Porfiri shows the tropical zebrafish at TEDxSMU

So Porfiri’s robot is designed to look like the fish. The robot has markings and a body shape similar to a zebrafish, but is quite a bit bigger than a live specimen, whose miniscule dimensions couldn’t support all of the equipment to power a robot, he says.

Maurizio Porfiri's robot fish

Maurizio Porfiri’s robot fish

Despite its large size, the robot attracts zebrafish, Porfiri says. In experiments, live zebrafish in a tank with the robotic fish displayed schooling behavior, drawing close to the robot and collectively staying near the robot’s side of the tank. With further development of the robot, Porfiri hopes that the creation will be prepared for the open sea, ready to guide fish away from danger and disaster.

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:
The speaker is an engineer doing significant work in applied physics, robotics and animal behavior. He is associated with several prominent research institutions and has spent years in the field. He presents his idea — that scientific insights gleaned from observing nature could (and should) be used to help nature — through exploring one technology his team is developing. He gives through background information to help viewers contextualize the project and explains a complex robotics project in direct, clear and engaging language, supported with vibrant visuals.


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