For centuries aquatic researchers have by necessity employed many techniques that are environmentally disruptive, if not destructive, such as trawling and haul seining for fish. Other traditional methods are simply snapshots, such as grab samples to assess water quality.
An important innovation of technology-based research is the ability to study the biological, chemical and physical components of an ecosystem long-term, in real-time, and, eventually, without harmful consequences.
One mission of Beacon Institute’s River and Estuary Observatory Network is real-time monitoring of water, as we have discussed often in these pages. But as sensor technology continues to innovate, the day will arrive when REON stations will also study fish populations with high accuracy, in all physical and temporal dimensions, with minimal harm to organisms. You may even be able to watch Hudson River fish swim across your smartphone app.
Robotics also hold great promise. Researchers in the Distributed Robotics Labgroup of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed a soft robotic fish they say could someday “infiltrate schools of real fish to gather detailed information about their behavior.”
The objective of the team was an autonomous mechanical fish that will mimic the rapid response movements of a real fish — “execute an escape maneuver, convulsing its body to change direction in just a fraction of a second.” The robot’s soft body is also an important element of the design. “It’s much easier to make robots safe if their bodies are so wonderfully soft that there’s no danger if they whack you,” says Daniela Rus, the lab’s director.
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