Robotics researchers at Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have designed an Envirobot, a robotic eel that is able to snake through contaminated water to find the source of pollution.
Envirobot has undergone trials in Lake Geneva.
The robot, which measures 1.5 metres in length is made of individual modules and can be controlled remotely or swim on its own. Each module houses a small electric motor, and the motors together, change the robot's curvature, allowing it to snake smoothly through the water without stirring up mud or annoying aquatic life.
Some of these modules also contain sensors to measure things conductivity and temperature etc, while others contain chambers designed to fill up with water. Those that filled up with water also housed bacteria, small crustaceans and fish cells, which worked as biological sensors.
By watching how these organisms respond to the water as it entered the chamber, the operators are able to learn about the kind of pollutants in the water and their toxicity in general. The team has only tried this out in the lab, where it was found to be highly effective.
"For example, we developed bacteria that generate light when exposed to very low concentrations of mercury," says Jan Roelof van der Meer, project coordinator and head of the department of fundamental microbiology at the University of Lausanne. "We can detect those changes using luminometers and then transmit the data in the form of electrical signals."
The scientists also placed tiny crustaceans called Daphnia in one module, since their movements could indicate water toxicity.
The swimming robot can take the data collected by the sensors and send them to a remote computer in real time. And since it moved like a real eel, unlike robots with propellers that created disturbance for aquatic life, the data it gathers is the most accurate data possible.