Watch: This robot secret agent can change the behavior of a school of fish

Biomimicry has entered a new phase: Robots that learn from animals.

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Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a Swiss university, have created a miniature robot that can swim with fish.

No biggie, right? Well, this robot also learns how fish in the school it's infiltrated communicate with each other. It then mimics that communication and movement, allowing it to influence the school's behavior.

"We created a kind of 'secret agent' that can infiltrate these schools of small fish," says Frank Bonnet, a post-doc researcher at EPFL who is a co-author on the study.

After designing a fish that could move with the same velocity and nimbleness as the target species, the researchers built a closed-loop system that enabled their robot to adapt its behaviors based on the observed behaviors of the group. The robot fish's swimming improved as it spent more time with the biological fish.

The research was carried out in the EPFL's Robotic Systems Lab, which is led by Professor Francesco Mondada. The findings, published recently in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, are compelling both for the biological mimicry the researchers pulled off and as a demonstration of how engineers are beginning to design adaptable robots that refine their skills through exposure to new environments.

The fish demonstration is also an early indication of how readily an autonomous machine might exert influence over a biological group unaware of its presence.

So far, the robot has successfully been tested on schools of zebrafish, causing them to come together and change direction in ways they otherwise wouldn't.

The Robotic Systems Lab has previously done similar work on cockroaches. "Fish are much more complicated animals. To integrate into an insect community, a robot simply has to emit certain kinds of pheromones. But integrating into a community of vertebrates seems to involve many more criteria, in terms of such things as appearance, movement, and vibration," says Bonnet.

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