Starting in April 2011, the European Union CoCoRo (Collective Cognitive Robots) research consortium has been developing three varieties of autonomous underwater robots that school together like fish. By doing so, the little bots can share and learn from each others' "knowledge" of their environment, acting as a collective cognitive system that's smarter than any one of its individual parts.
The robots communicate with one another via built-in flashing LEDs, using onboard electronics such as computer vision systems, compasses and accelerometers to find their way around aquatic environments.
Utilizing an algorithm inspired by the clustering behavior of bees (not fish!), they can seek out others of their kind and then settle together around one central base location, becoming aware of the growing size of their group as more robots arrive. Individuals can then leave that cluster to go on their own missions, subsequently returning to share their findings with the group.
In one experiment, groups of two types of the robots – "Jeff" robots and "Lily" robots – were put in a pool to locate a simulated crashed airplane (actually a group of magnets, used to simulate the plane's electro-magnetic field). While the Lily robots patrolled the surface, the Jeffs went deeper.
Once one of the Jeff robots located the magnets, it used its LEDs to signal the other Jeffs, which responded by gathering around it over the "wreckage." The Lily robots observed this behavior from above, and responded by forming a cluster on the surface in the same location.
The robots have also been tested in the open ocean in Italy, where they reportedly were able to cluster and patrol despite the waves, currents and corrosive salt water.
Although the CoCoRo project wrapped up last September, the researchers are just now beginning to publicize the results. It is hoped that the technology could ultimately find its way into autonomous schooling aquatic robots used for ecological monitoring, reconnaissance, or other applications.
Some of the robots can be seen in action, in the video below.
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