Biologists must watch wildlife for days, weeks, or even years to catch glimpses of their complex social behavior. As robotics has advanced, scientists are engineering mechanical creatures that mimic their flesh-and-blood brethren so closely they can be adopted back into the wild. Robots from guppies to cockroaches are allowing scientists to study animals’ secrets.
The most recent breakthrough is a robotic fish created by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), according to Science Daily. Scientists studying schooling fish discovered that leaders would beat their tail faster than followers, enabling the group to take cues and perhaps coast off the efforts of the frontrunner.
The experiments, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, show golden shiners taking a shine to the white, faceless robo-fish. When the cadence of its swimming matched that of normal school leaders, the schools followed (while it was ignored at slower speeds).
"These experiments may open up new channels for us to explore the possibilities for robotic interactions with live animals—an area that is largely untapped," said Maurizio Porfiri, an NYU-Poly associate professor of mechanical engineering in Science Daily. "By looking to nature to guide our design, and creating robots that tap into animals’ natural cue, we may be able to influence collective animal behavior to aid environmental conservation and disaster recovery efforts."
The field of robot-animal interaction experiments (including those with our own species) is expanding. At the moment, social behavior relies mostly on description. Yet untangling the nature of wildlife (or even human) behavior often demands that scientists alter a single variable such as physical cues, sounds, or even appearance to study how this alters the interaction. Robotic behavioral experiments now span the animal kingdom with fish, birds, cockroaches, and mammals (including humans) in the scientific literature, according to a Trends in Ecology and Evolution article (PDF). "Cyborg" experiments even implant electrodes into live insects to control their movements and behavior.
Where is all this going? The creators of NYU-Poly’s fish say such robotic animals could reveal the cues for collective animal behavior and, possibly, steer wildlife away from environmental disasters. Venturing further out on the cutting edge, we’ll soon see herds, pods, or prides of interactive, autonomous robots that can assemble together like real animals. The emerging field of swarm intelligence and swarm robotics promises to create a "behavior architecture of organisms," and robots that will move, respond, and act just like them. For better or worse.