Fish as pets are satisfying to us as we can create an entire ecosystem and watch them thrive under our nurturing. In the home, we can day in and day out study and explore these peaceful creatures on a superficial basis allowing them to offer us tranquility and meditation as they swim peacefully, paying no mind to terrible things in the news, daily drama, or the paying of bills.
As we view them in their homes from within our own, generally, often it just seems there isn’t much to these simple animals comprised of generally smaller bodies, small brains, and not a lot of animation—unless you are actually watching a Disney film.
Fish offer a great deal of promise in research, however, and the world of 3D printing and robotics is offering a whole new way of studying them now in a lab environment; however, these probably aren’t fish you want to put in your tank, as they are meant to function as artificial predators, instilling fear so that researchers can better study anxiety. This scenario might upset the applecart in your home aquarium, but for researchers it’s invaluable, resourceful technology being put to use for important work.
The vast world of fish outside the aquarium—almost as vast as the oceans themselves–is open to major scientific study, and Dr. Maurizio Porfiri, professor of mechanical engineering at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, believes that fish could actually be the key to unlocking major research regarding animal and human behavior. While research is often performed on rats, Porfiri believes that fish could be the answer to replacing them in research labs, and he is not alone in his thinking. The only catch, according to the research scientist, is that fish are very unpredictable.
With the 3D printed robotic fish, he hopes to solve the problem of facilitating easier and more manageable research, as well as being able to understand more about animal behaviors with the robotic and controlled study group being used with zebrafish.
Most of the general public probably doesn’t realize that zebrafish are actually commonly used for contemporary animal research because they are vertebrates, meaning they have a backbone, and also because they are easy to keep, breed, and study, due to the transparency of their embryos, which are laid and grow outside of the female’s body. They also produce large numbers of embryos, with their prolific numbers allowing for more study by greater numbers of students in the lab environment.
At Porfiri’s Dynamical Systems Lab, they have the revolutionary task of exploring and creating the underwater robotics. Currently, they are making the 3D printed robotic fish in their lab as well as housing a research area for behavioral study and testing, as real fish swim with the robots.
“Our robot is quite simple. They are all printed with a 3D printer,” said Porfiri. “We look at pictures of live animals and then we utilize them to make computer-aided designs which we use to 3D print the outer shell of the robot.”
So how can fish, zebrafish, and 3D printed robots help us in research? According to Porfiri, they can help in the study of anxiety and fear. Traditionally they have put predatory fish in with the zebrafish, dosed the tank with alcohol, and watched to see what would happen.
“The problem with these experiments is that sometimes the predator doesn’t behave the way it should,” says Porfiri.”So what we wanted to do was replace the predator with a robot that would always behave the same with the animals.”
“We can make predators which can condition animal behavior,” says Porfiri. “So, for example, we may want to drive our fish away from danger if there were an oil spill. There was no research before, at least to the best of my knowledge, focused on influencing the behavior of fish using robots, and now people are starting to look into this technology for doing experiments in their own laboratories.”
A recent research project regarding autism actually referred to the work Porfiri and his team are doing in research, specifically pointing toward the technology and procedures they are using. Porfiri emphasizes how important it is for their research to make as much impact as possible.
“The use of robots can be very, very helpful in developing experiments which are highly customizable and repeatable to minimize the number of experimental subjects,” says Porfiri.
The designs, open source, are available to all. One of Dr. Porfiri’s PhD students, Paul Phamduy, has actually designed one of the 3D printed robotic fish which is controlled by his iPod Touch. The rest of the team in the lab also helped design an app to control the steering of the 3D printed robotic fish, as well as amplitude and frequency.
Professor Porfiri and his team have a wide range of colorful 3D printed robots in their lab, including larger ones which they actually plan to use for studying fish in the wild soon.
What do you think of the concept of using 3D printed robot fish instead of rats to study animal behavior? Tell us your thoughts in the 3D Printed Robotic Fish forum thread over at 3DPB.com.