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Swarms of robotic fish can synchronize their swimming, for the first time

Swimming in sync is one of the most important lessons a school of fish can learn: The coordination helps them find food—and evade predators. But when scientists try to train robots to match this stunning natural feat, most fall short. Now, researchers have developed a fleet of seven underwater “fishbots” that can swim in circles—without crashing into one another.

Most robot swarms coordinate their movements via a centralized computer that tells them where to go, in the form of GPS coordinates. But researchers wanted the robots to control their own movements. Inspired by two of the ways fish sense their neighbors—bioluminescence and vision—researchers outfitted fish-shaped underwater robots with two wide-angle cameras, one in each “eye,” and bright blue light-emitting diode lights.

They developed a suite of algorithms hard-wired into the fish to coordinate collective behaviors—from swimming in a circle to scattering into the far reaches of their tank.

After roughly 1 year of testing, the fishbots successfully performed multiple movements, and could transition between behaviors seamlessly (see video, above). This is one of the first underwater swarms that can coordinate behavior without a centralized computer, researchers report this week in Science Robotics. But before they head out to the open ocean, scientists are going to give them another way to recognize each other: striped schooling marks.

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