What could a robotic fish look like?

From 5-6th December, FIRE lab took part in a Cherish-DE funded workshop about the development of robotics to address challenges in fisheries. The workshop was led by Steph and Dr James Stovold, who, along with Dr Ting Jarusriboonchai, were awarded the funds for the workshop based on a project pitch they developed in early 2018. The project was first conceived by James, Steph, and Ting in April 2018, during a short activity at a Cherish-DE Crucible in Swansea. The project idea was for a robotic fish that could guide migratory fishes around or over dams that otherwise blocked fishes’ movements. Fish elevators already exist for assisting fish up and over dams, so why not robots that can also help fishes overcome obstacles? The robotic fish idea evolved throughout the year, and in July the team were asked to pitch a final refined version of the project to a panel of experts and funders.

The final project idea evolved away from using a robotic fish to assist fishes over dams to identifying solutions for a ‘simpler’ challenge that the team learned about when reading a recent research article by MacCall et al. (2018). This challenge was still related to fish migration, but without dams. MacCall et al. (2018) highlighted that there are leaders within schools of Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) that have a role in guiding schools of herring from the sea to coastal areas for spawning. Steph and James were keen to better understand both the feasibility of a robotic fish, and to identify specific environmental challenges related to fisheries that robotics could assist with better understanding and overcoming those challenges. Through their research to further refine their project pitch, Steph and James came across a popular science article in Hakai Magazine about the role of leaders and learning within fish schools, and the fact that larger Herring are being lost from populations and that smaller Herring weren’t returning to their centuries old spawning grounds. This knowledge of changes to the Herring population was observed by Bill Gladstone, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who then passed on the knowledge to scientists working at a nearby university, and the team and communities are working to better understand what is driving these changes in Herring schools and movement in their region. Inspired by these stories and research, Steph and James refined their pitch, proposing a robotic fish that could help address this potential loss of learners within migratory fish populations here in Europe. The pitch was successful, and with the funds secured, the team organized their first Robofish Workshop.

The Robofish Workshop was transdisciplinary, including researchers from human and physical geography, biological sciences, fisheries, robotics, and mathematics, as well as government representatives who work on closing the divide between research and policy. The goal of the two-day workshop was to identify needs, feasibility, and interest around advancing underwater robotic tools that could assist with overcoming challenges faced in studying and managing underwater environments. Below, the FIRE Lab team provide an overview of the workshop, present the different activities in the order that they occurred, and share our own reflections from the workshop. 


Ideas shared during a creative excerise to design a robotic fish.

Icebreakers and robofish design activity. At the start of the workshop, we were asked to move around the room, and when we bumped into someone we needed to make eye contact, shake hands, and say ‘yes’ to the other person. This activity concluded with each of us sharing a few lines about ourselves, what we do, and our interests in the Robofish Workshop. We then broke into two groups and were asked to draw what we believed the final robofish could look like. We brainstormed, wrote down ideas on post-it notes, and collaboratively contributed to different robofish designs. These activities encouraged us to interact with each other and fostered a sense of community. The drawing activity proved to be a good way of exchanging ideas about the types of considerations that might need to go into developing robotic fishes. The ideas from the post-it notes were shared across groups, and helped to form broader discussions about the robotic technicalities as well as considerations about human and animal awareness of robotic fishes.  

Breakout group activity 1 – what are the research possibilities related to robotic fishes? We worked in smaller groups to brainstorm the research possibilities of robotic fish; discussions spanned three main topics: scientific communication, fisheries management, and the politics of knowledge. In this activity, we discussed the politics of knowledge around the development of a robotic fish, and argue that this particular robotic fish project is an exciting case study in normalizing local ecological knowledge in the creation of scientific projects. We identified a number of challenges faced in different fisheries management situations where robotics could provide multiple applications, and potentially more sustainable future options. Finally, we also discussed the role of a robotic fish in scientific communication projects. Robotic fish could be used as a way to engage communities in discussions about diverse topics such as fisheries management and conservation, exotic fish trades and aquariums, and human-robot interactions more broadly. Broadly speaking, this activity allowed us to identify a broader set of possibilities for robotic fish that could be used to better our understanding of underwater environments and fishes, and that could be additional tools in different fisheries management toolboxes. This activity pushed us to engage with the possibiliteis of communicating science with communities and engaging with local forms of knowledge.

Breakout group activity 2 – identify challenges. We were randomly assigned to new break-out groups (crossing-disciplines) for this activity. In these new groups we were tasked with identify challenges related to the development and implementation of a robotic fish that could assist with fish learning and migration. Various technological challenges were discussed in relation to constructing an autonomous robot capable of being underwater for significant time periods while also possessing the technologies and realism necessary to successfully interact with fish schools. We also identified critical knowledge gaps about Herring populations in the UK that would need to be overcome before such a robotic fish could be designed. We also discussed human and animal ethics around robots, and the need to better understand public perceptions of a potential robotic fish as well as of Herring (past, present, and future).

Cross-group discussion on ideas generated in break out groups. After the breakout group activity, we reconvened as one large group and discussed the ideas and challenges that we identified. This broader group discussion allowed us to identify commonalities and differences raised between groups, and allowed us to move toward more refined sets of research questions that would, and could, be pursued in-line with the robofish concept. While this was challenging, it fostered a discussion that made us work harder to identify those key concepts and questions that could pursued for additional research. It also helped us to realize the sheer diversity of research questions that could emerge from one such pursuit, as well as the broader understanding and advancements that could be achieved by pursuing these different questions.   

Funding opportunities and project potential. The final half-day of the workshop was focused on further refining short, medium and long term research questions, identifying particular funding opportunities that could be pursued, and we established specific review and resarch papers that we could alrady pursue based on ideas that emerged from the workshop. 

What did the FIRE Lab take away from the Robofish Workshop?


FIRE Lab team at Robofish Workshop.

Sayali Pawar: This event taught me the importance of sharing what we all do and the listening to what others have to say! The wealth of information that I personally gained about fisheries and the challenges faced was very helpful. Networking with other colleagues from interdisciplinary fields will help in adding new ways and apply them in my future research.

Tara Cater: I appreciated the way this event engaged with Indigenous and local ecological knowledge in fisheries science. The discussions were interdisciplinary in nature with each participant adding a different and important dimension to the project. I left the event feeling inspired to communicate science to multiple audiences in new ways.

James White: Working alongside a group with such a diverse range of research backgrounds heavily reinforced the potential power of interdisciplinary research within science. The workshop also highlighted the role of technologies in underpinning the conservation of ecosystems and made me consider how such innovative approaches could be incorporated within my own research in the future.

Steph Januchowski-Hartley: Organizing and leading such a workshop as an early career researcher was very rewarding. I could not have anticipated the enthusiasm, sincerity, and passion shared by workshop attendees. I learned a lot from this workshop, particularly with regards to day-to-day challenges faced in fisheries management, and the opportunities that exist for developing diverse tools that could help us to overcome some of these challenges. I left the meeting inspired and look forward to further pursuing research in this area.  

Thank you for reading! This article was written collaboratively by all current memers of the FIRE Lab (SRJH, SP, TC and JW). If you have questions about this workshop or post, please be in touch with Steph (s.r.januchowski(at)swansea.ac.uk). Next week we have a new #FishInThePost!

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