Meet this MSU Invention: Robot Fish

By Jane Whitttington on July 22nd, 2015 / Comments

It sounds like some futuristic, science-fiction movie: robot fish gliding through the water, spying on schools of fish and monitoring their movements, detecting danger and disease, communicating through elaborate technological means and methods. But it’s not science fiction; it’s science fact. And it’s happening now, not in the future. These robot fish are being developed by a team from the fields of science, engineering, technology and ecology.

Xiaobo Tan, a professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, is working with Guoliang Xing, also from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Charles Krueger, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability; Chris Holbrook, Research Ecologist; and Darryl Hondorp, Supervisory Fishery Biologist, Great Lakes Science Center on this long-term project. Their goal is to not only track live fish but also to detect both toxins and invasive species in lakes and rivers. The technology also allows for the testing of water quality.

According to Tan, “The robots can carry different sensors depending on its specific mission. We’re able to control the robot to dive, swim, go to particular spots, collect data and send the data back to us.”

He continues, “We’d been working on tracking fish in the Great Lakes with stationary equipment. In our discussions, we talked about the possibility of using technology that would allow us to create equipment that could move through the water, not just stay in one place. These discussions led to the creation of prototypes, and we are continuing to work on designing, developing and using ever more sophisticated models.”

Since it can track fish populations, it is useful for not only native fish but also for the detection of invasive species like the lamprey eel, which is a parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean. It was detected in the Great Lakes as early as the 1930’s. Lampreys have had an enormous, negative impact on the Great Lakes native fish populations, inflicting considerable damage.

The robot fish technology is being tested at the Kellogg Biological Station, an MSU research field station with a focus on fundamental and applied research in ecology and agriculture.

According to Tan, plans are to next test the technology in Thunder Bay on Lake Huron and then move into Lake Erie, long plagued by invasive species and algal blooms which can produce toxins capable of causing illness, sometimes even death, in pets, livestock and humans.

Commercialization of the product is a possibility being explored with help from Spartan Innovations, an MSU incubator for business start-ups.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a $1 million grant to fund the project. Other funding has come from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the Great Lakes Science Center as well as Spartan Innovations.

For more information about the project,visit and

About the Author

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grand Rapids. A Michigan native and Michigan State University grad, she enjoys reading, travel, politics and volunteering.