The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Navy funds lab’s research on robotic fish

Engineers in the Laboratory for Biological Systems Analysis at Drexel University will be able to continue their research on robotic fish thanks to a $1.1 million grant from the Office of Naval Research, as announced March 8 in a Drexel press release.

The funding, which will be dispersed over the next three years, could help the lab pioneer ways to perfect autonomous underwater vehicles, making them better suited for the water.

“I don’t know if we are at the point where our research can be directly transferred to underwater vehicle designs for the Navy, but I [know] that soon you’ll be seeing more UVs that look and act less like torpedoes and more like fish,” team member Anthony Mignano, a third-year graduate student, said.

The United States Department of the Navy has been supporting the lab’s work for six years because of the potential to translate research findings into sophisticated marine systems. A major focus of the Drexel team’s research concentrates on how the hierarchical sensory control of the fish influences its swimming capabilities. This could provide insight into how to move autonomous underwater vehicles more effectively.

“A lot of what the Navy is interested in is how you develop autonomous systems that exhibit complex behaviors,” James Tangorra, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering, said. “By using the fish as a biological model, we can learn principles about how it swims and how it makes decisions and extract that, directly for the Navy, [into] undersea vehicles that are going to behave more like a fish.”

Tangorra and his team of student researchers have been working with a robotic replication of the bluegill fish in order to understand the integration of sense and control in complex biological systems. By looking at different aspects of fish, including sensory, neurological and propulsion systems, the team aims to replicate these systems in the robots in order to gain a deeper understanding of the relationships between them.

“The first robot that we studied is [a mechanical replication of] the pectoral fin. We look at the biology very carefully. We try to understand what’s important to the biology and then implement that into the robotics system and try to recreate what the fish does,” Tangorra said.

Mignano, who is working toward his doctorate, was involved in the first stages of this project. While working toward his master’s degree, he joined the lab, created the computer-aided design models, and designed the mechanisms for the lab’s first robotic fish.

“[Now] I want to investigate what advantages the cooperation of the [sensory and neurological] systems gives the fish, particularly where it relates to maneuverability and swimming efficiency,” he explained. “Currently, my research focuses specifically on how the fins collectively create forces and move the body.”

The team is also collaborating with scientists from other universities around the country. A counterpart at Harvard University is conducting a behavioral analysis and looking at how the fish respond to different sensory inputs. At the University of Chicago, a team is studying the sensory cells that are present and how the fish process information, which can then be integrated into the mathematical models being created at Drexel. Lastly, a professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is looking into how the sensory systems influence mechanical properties of the fish.