Blind cave fish inspires sensing system for autonomous underwater vehicles


December 13, 2012

A blind cave fish, that gets around underwater just fine (Photo: Frank Vassen)

A blind cave fish, that gets around underwater just fine (Photo: Frank Vassen)

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Ever wonder how fish can find their way around so easily in murky water? Well, most of them use something called their lateral line – a row of hair cells down either side of their body that detect changes in water pressure caused by movement, or by water flowing around objects. Now, scientists from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and MIT have copied the lateral lines of the blind cave fish, in a man-made system designed to allow autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to navigate more accurately and efficiently.

Ordinarily, AUVs use cameras, sonar, or an underwater acoustic positioning system. Cameras aren’t much use in murky water, however – and a lot of the world’s water bodies are murky. Sonar and acoustics are better in such situations, but the hardware can be expensive, and taxing on the AUV’s batteries.

By contrast, the blind cave fish-inspired sensors can reportedly be made for under US$100 per array, and use little power. Additionally, they don’t produce audible sonar “pings” that can be harmful to aquatic animals.

Instead, the system utilizes an array consisting of two rows of five sensors (yes, we know there are four rows in the picture – it's presumably two joined arrays). Each sensor measures just 1.8 x 1.8 mm and consists of a microscopic sensory pillar surrounded by hydrogel, that bends with changes in the water pressure. Combined with a computer vision system, the arrays reportedly allow Nanyang’s AUVs to create 3D images of nearby objects, and to map their surroundings.

Besides their use in AUVs it has also been suggested that the sensors could find use on military submarines, that don’t wish to announce their presence to enemies via sonar pings.

The scientists have already created two versions of the sensor array. One is a piezoelectric version that generates its own voltage via the flow of the water over the sensors, while the other is a piezo-resistive version that can detect submerged objects even when the water flowing around them is barely moving.

Another lateral line-inspired underwater sensing system is being developed by scientists from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.

Source: Nanyang Technological University

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

wonder if you can use these on submarines for guidance, "sonar", detection of torpedoes, location, etc.?


This is pretty cool. There was some similar work a while back by robotics researchers using electric field sensing fish as the model. Basically, the researchers built arrays of electric field sensors to do the same thing (ie. "tomography" -- determining which space is occupied). I wrote about some of it a while back:

More recently... some Italian robotics researchers presented work at ICRA / IROS (some of the top robotics conferences), using the same electric field tomography in underwater ROVs to detect obstacles in murky water. I don't know the reference off hand (buried in email)... but I could probably look it up if you're curious.

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