Throw a fish carcass into a submersible trap, and the ocean’s crabs and lobsters are the first to arrive for a full meal before realizing that they’ve been caught. Lobsters and crabs smell by dragging their antennules through the water where chemosensory hairs on the ends of these antennules come into contact with odor molecules. Researchers are interested in replicating the process in a robotic version, which will be used to sniff out unexploded mines on the ocean floor, and eventually toxic chemical spills.
Mimi Koehl of UCBerkeley and Jeffrey Koseff and John Crimaldi at Stanford, developed a mechanical lobster capable of imitating the flicking of real lobster’s antennules in attempts to understand how the animals “smell” underwater 7 years ago [2001 press release]. More recently, Frank Grasso, a neurobiologist and professor at Brooklyn College has revealed robotic lobsters-aka RoboLobsters-that can successfully track plumes from over 30 feet away.
Biomimetic engineers take cues from nature to create robots for specific environments. Evolution has done the brunt of the work developing animals perfectly suited to handle the ocean environment over the course of millions of years. By replicating the lobster’s shape,designed to crawl the ocean floor,and copying their sense of smell,able to trace odors to specific locations, robotic lobsters can be programmed to find anything that releases specific odor molecules in the ocean.
The potential in these underwater bloodhounds was seen by the U.S Navy which now funds the majority of the RoboLobster project. The Navy is currently interested in using the technology to detect unexploded mines, but the robots may eventually be able to sniff out anything that leaves behind a chemical trail-such as pollutants dumped into lakes and oceans by industrial plants or ships.
Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) Magazine provides more details in a full length article.
Swarms of robotic lobsters released in the ocean will be capable of bringing back more information than any diver could. Plus, these little guys ensure that no divers get harmed when following a chemical spill trail.