How Can Sharks Help Us Design Robots?

 Sharks Help Us Design Robots: Biologically inspired underwater odour detection robots may benefit from the discoveries made by researchers who discovered that sharks look for odour sources using a more intricate navigation system than previously imagined.

On the shark’s head are two nostrils, like other fish. For a long time, experts assumed that a shark’s steering decisions were only dependent on changes in the concentration of odour in the water. So, a shark will turn towards the side that smells something more strongly if it perceives the scent in both nostrils. Despite this, a new study published in Current Biology suggests that odour concentration is not as significant as the time the odour reaches each nose. As it turns out, individuals of the species Mustelus canis, the sharks utilised in the study, were able to identify extremely minor delays in the time it took for the odour to strike one nostril after another. That’s what they did when they realised there was a delay in their reaction.

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This study’s findings might aid in the design of underwater robots that are tasked with finding the source of deep-water stench plumes, such as leaky oil pipes. It is still early days for biomimicry, especially when it comes to chemical sensors for deep-sea robots. Previous designs relying on concentration differences to navigate olfactory plumes and locate the source of the scent were not nearly as effective as their animal equivalents.

Study co-author and Boston University biology professor Jelle Atema believes that when it comes to odour dispersal, “concentration” isn’t the most trustworthy indicator of an odour’s potency. Dispersion of scents in moving air or water is particularly chaotic, resulting in areas with wildly different concentrations. This can be shown by looking at “if you look at the dispersal of an odour plume from an industrial smokestack, you notice patches of high and low concentrations all over the place,” adds Atema, and it does not correlate to the source.

How Can Sharks Help Us Design Robots?

When sharks are determining which direction to swim in, the researchers believe they must take into account other elements. Eight small sharks’ nostrils were fitted with odour delivery tubes by Atema and marine biologist Jayne Gardiner of the University of South Florida to see if time differences influenced their ability to navigate. They controlled for all stimuli except the arrival times of two odour pulses separated by less than half a second. It didn’t matter that the second pulse had a more intense odour; the sharks always followed the initial pulse.

This sense of time, Atema believes, should be included in the navigation system of a biomimetic robot, together with sensors that monitor water flow patterns and visual information. As a result of this research, two-nostriled marine creatures can better understand how odour dispersal works and how to develop more successful animal-inspired robots in the future.

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