GhostBot Robotic Ghost Knifefish

The robotic ghost knifefish is more maneuverable than any of its predecessors, able to change from swimming forward and backward to swimming vertically almost instantly. The device imitates the development of the black ghost knifefish, found in the Amazon basin.

(The GhostBot video)

Led by Malcolm MacIver, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the team’s results are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The black ghost knifefish, which works at night in rivers of the Amazon basin, hunts for prey using a weak electric field around its entire body and moves both forward and backward using a ribbon-like fin on the underside of its body.

MacIver, a robotics expert who served as a scientific consultant for “Tron: Legacy” and is science advisor for the television series “Caprica,” has studied the knifefish for years. Working with Neelesh Patankar, associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the paper, he has created mechanical models of the fish in hopes of better understanding how the nervous system sends messages throughout the body to make it move.

SF fans of course remember the the Mitsubishi turbot, the robofish that is the star of Michael Swanwick's 2002 novelette Slow Life. In the story, astronauts gamely explore Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, while doing good public relations by answering constant questions posed for them over the Web. The robofish is used to swim not just in water, but in icy lakes of methane and ammonia:

Consuelo carefully cleaned both of her suit’s gloves in the sea, then seized the shrink-wrap’s zip tab and yanked. The plastic parted. Awkwardly, she straddled the fish, lifted it by the two side-handles, and walked it into the dark slush.
She set the fish down. "Now I’m turning it on."
The Mitsubishi turbot wriggled, as if alive. With one fluid motion, it surged forward, plunged, and was gone.
Lizzie switched over to the fishcam.
Black liquid flashed past the turbot’s infrared eyes. Straight away from the shore it swam, seeing nothing but flecks of paraffin, ice, and other suspended particulates as they loomed up before it and were swept away in the violence of its wake. A hundred meters out, it bounced a pulse of radar off the sea floor, then dove, seeking the depths... (
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Via Northwestern press release.

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