Robotic Fish Are About to Take to the Water All Across the World

The sensor fish are ready to take data of your dam and how it affects salmon, today.

sensor fish
PNNL

Robotic "sensor fish," as they're known, have been measuring and collecting data on actual fish for years. Developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), they're now going to be sold across the world to dams that want to better understand their relationship with the ecosystem they inhabit.

First built by the DoE's (PNNL), the sensor fish are 3.5 inches long. That's around the size of a larger salmon smolt, the of a fish where they begin their first voyage from freshwater streams to the ocean. While they don't look like fish, the sensor fish are the same size as many salmon when they encounter hydroelectric dams for the first time.

While each sensor fish typically takes less than two minutes to pass through the dam, during that time period it is taking approximately 2,000 measurements per second. That is crucial data for the future of hydroelectricity.

"The vast majority of juvenile salmon and steelhead passing through the turbines survive without injury in the Columbia River Basin," says Daniel Deng, a laboratory fellow at PNNL, in a "Still, we want to understand more about the injuries and mortality that do occur from . The Sensor Fish provides information to help engineers design more fish-friendly turbines going forward."

After a sensor fish moves through a dam, an automatic retrieval system sets into motion. LED lights and radio signals allow for the sensor to be easily collected by boats waiting on the other side of the dam.

Working with (ATS), a private company focused on "electronic methods of tracking animals in the wild," PNNL has streamlined the construction of the sensor fish, allowing for hydroelectric dams around the world to get access to their data.

"There is a big need for the type of data provided by the Sensor Fish," says ATS president Peter Kuechle. "Mature hydropower industries in the U.S. and Europe hope to modify operations in order to help fish survive. In Europe, regulations insist on testing for this information, and certainly there's a need for the data in emerging hydropower projects globally."

Fish have always migrated across the globe, but their movement erratic and unpredictable. There's no telling when a dam could suddenly find itself under a deluge of fish. That's why, along with the sensor fish, ATS is helping develop fish-tag technology known as the and its advanced decoder software. JSATS can monitor a fish's passage through dams and into the open ocean while keeping tabs on its behavior.

The threats against fish right now are multifaceted. The better understanding scientists can get of how human-built structures interact with the animals, the better. Robotic fish will likely play a large role in that understanding—more realistic robots have already been used to spy on the real thing.

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