Pollution-Sniffing Robofish to Scour Thames

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They're a lot like Robocop "“ except instead of patrolling the mean streets of Detroit in a fictional future, they could be patrolling the mean waters of the Thames. Researchers at the University of Essex at Colchester, working with a £2.5 million grant from the EU, are currently developing pollution-sniffing robofish to help detect harmful chemicals in the Thames and other bodies of water.

The robofish are each armed with internal GPS systems, artificial intelligence software, and sensors capable of detecting levels of pollution. They move, much like real fish do, by undulating their faux-scaly bodies. The pollution-detecting robofish's movement is based on an existing battery operated working model on view at the London Aquarium, which employs an internal motor in a watertight compartment and moves eerily exactly like a real fish. Here's a video of an early model:

The robofish will be deployed in schools of five and can communicate with one another using wi-fi; when one robofish has detected a contaminant, it sends a message to the others, which will then motor on over and take readings of the area. The fish will swim about the Thames, or another body of water, unmonitored by humans unless they find pollution. Researchers plan to have a working prototype, jam-packed with sensors, ready in as little as 18 months.

The Dirty History of The Thames

thames.jpgThe Thames, which may become home to these unique fish, was at one time so polluted that it wasn't home to any fish at all. After literally thousands of years of human sewage and industrial waste filtering through its depths, the river gave up its last salmon in 1833. Also in the 1830s, pollution in the river "“ which supplied London with its main drinking supply "“ caused a massive outbreak of cholera. In the 1850s, MPs were driven out of House of Commons by the stench of the nearby river.

In 1878, the pleasure steamship the Princess Alice collided with another vessel on the river and sank "“ just north of the section of the river that supported the industrial waste of two cities and an open sewer drain from another. More than 600 people died in the accident, though identifying the victims proved to be a monumentally difficult task because the river's pollution had so disfigured them.

In the 1950s, British scientists declared the river a biological deadzone, incapable of sustaining marine life.

Still, incredibly polluted though it was, the river has made a substantial comeback in the last 50 years, as the result of the closing of the docks, legislation, and concerted efforts to clean up. In 1974, salmon even made their way back up the river. It enjoys a reputation now as one of the cleanest rivers to flow through a metropolitan city, although that standing suffered a few blows this decade after surveys found high levels of illness-causing bacteria present in the water caused by sewage overflow after heavy rains.

March 25, 2009 - 8:38am
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