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RoboCarp, Dreams Of Electronic Sheep

by Bethany Halford
April 6, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 14

Polluters in the northern Spanish seas may soon find their befouling ways caught by an ODD NEW SCHOOL of chemical detectives. Scientists and engineers in the U.K. are building five robotic carp equipped with chemical sensors to patrol the Port of Gijón.

Pisces P.I.:
Credit: University of Essex
A RoboCarp at the London Aquarium.
Credit: University of Essex
A RoboCarp at the London Aquarium.

These RoboCarp were designed by the University of Essex and BMT group, an engineering consultancy firm. They have autonomous navigation capabilities, which means the fishy detectives can swim around the port without anyone guiding them. When their batteries run low, the fish find their way back to their charging stations, where they beam back water-quality data via Wi-Fi.

These pollutant-policing pisces will look for oil leaks from ships and underwater pipelines, as well as other contaminants, by using chemical sensors embedded in their mouths and on their bodies. Their carp costume and lifelike swimming motions allow them to patrol without disturbing native sea creatures.

"In using robotic fish we are building on a design created by hundreds of millions of years' worth of evolution, which is incredibly energy efficient," says BMT senior research scientist Rory Doyle. "This efficiency is something we need to ensure that our pollution detection sensors can navigate in the underwater environment for hours on end."

Robotics professor Huosheng Hu and his team at the University of Essex will build the five fishy detectives at a cost of about $30,000 apiece. Each will be about the size of a seal and wriggle through the water at about 2 mph.

Shilling sheep:
Credit: Shutterstock
The latest in unconventional advertising.
Credit: Shutterstock
The latest in unconventional advertising.

Elsewhere in Britain, in a somewhat less intuitive marriage of technology and beast, SHEEP IN JACKETS festooned with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been busy bustling about the Welsh countryside in formations that resemble fireworks, the early arcade game Pong, and the Mona Lisa. A video of this so-called extreme sheep herding, made by the digital marketing and media firm the Viral Factory for electronics giant Samsung, has been making the rounds on YouTube and the Internet.

The viral video was made to advertise Samsung's new line of high-definition TVs, which are backlit by LEDs. Samsung makes no mention of the illuminated sheep on its website, but when the skeptics at Newscripts called Samsung's media relations department, we were assured that the viral video was not a hoax.

So what do high-tech televisions have to do with glowing sheep? Not much, admitted Toni Smith, managing director of the Viral Factory, to the New York Times. "It's a bit hard to convey the brilliance of a flat-screen TV in online video because it's so pixelated," Smith said. "Samsung just gave us the brief to make LEDs cool. How we put sheep and cool together is another question altogether."

The Viral Factory called on the skills of Welsh sheep-herding champion Gerry Lewis to choreograph the action. Lewis and the rest of the "Baaa-Studs"—an electrician, an LED master, and a film director—outfitted 300 sheep in LEDs and filmed them as trained dogs wrangled the critters into extreme sheep-herding formations on the British countryside.

Smith did say some digital wizardry, such as time-lapse video, was used to improve the aesthetics of the sheep show. Several million viewers have seen the video since it went online in mid-March, making it an un-a-baa-shed success.

Bethany Halford wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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