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Insight Into Swimming Fish Could Lead to Robotics Advances

Nov. 29, 2018
CONTACT: Jill Rosen
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The constant movement of fish that seems random is actually precisely deployed to provide them at any moment with the best sensory feedback they need any to navigate the world, Johns Hopkins University researchers found.

The finding, published today in the journal Current Biology, enhances our understanding of active sensing behaviors performed by all animals including humans, such as whisking, touching and sniffing, and demonstrates how robots built with better sensors could interact with their environment smarter and more effectively.

“There’s a saying in biology that when the world is still you stop being able to sense it,” says senior author Noah Cowan, a mechanical engineer and roboticist at Johns Hopkins. “You have to actively move to perceive your world but what we found that wasn’t known before is that animals constantly regulate these movements to optimize sensory input.”

For humans, active sensing is when we feel around in the dark for the bathroom light switch, or when we bobble an object up and down in our hands to figure out how much it weighs. We do these things almost unconsciously, and scientists have known little about how and why we adjust our movements according the sensory feedback we get from them.

To answer the question, Cowan and his colleagues studied weakly electric fish, fish that generate a weak electric field that emanates around their body and helps them with communication and navigation. The team created an augmented reality for the fish so they could observe how a fish’s movements changed as their feedback from the environment changed.

Inside the tank, the fish hovered within a tube where they wiggled back and forth constantly to maintain a steady level of sensory input about their surroundings. First, the researchers changed the environment by moving the tube in a way that was synchronized with the fish’s movement, making it harder for the fish to extract the same amount of information. Next they made the tube move in the opposite direction of the fish, making it easier for the fish. In each case, the fish immediately increased or decreased their swimming to get the same information. They swam harder when the tube’s movement gave them less sensory feedback and they swam less when they could get could get more feedback from with less effort. The findings were even more pronounced in the dark when the fish had to lean more on their electrosense.

“Their actions to perceive their world is under constant regulation,” said Eric Fortune from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a co-author on the study. “We think that’s also true for humans.”

Because Cowan is a roboticist and most of the authors on this team are engineers, they hope the biological insight can be used to build robots with smarter sensors. Sensors are rarely a key part of robot design now but these findings made Cowan realize they perhaps should be.

“Surprisingly engineers don’t typically design systems to operate this way,” says Debojyoti Biswas, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins and the lead author. “Knowing more about how these tiny movements work might offer new design strategies for our smart devices to sense the world.”

Other authors include Luke A. Arend, a visiting undergraduate researcher at Johns Hopkins; Sarah A. Stamper, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins; Balázs P. Vágvölgyi, a Johns Hopkins associate research engineer; and Eric S. Fortune, an associate professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

This work was supported by James McDonnell Foundation Complex Systems Scholar Award grant 112836; Collaborative National Science Foundation Award, grants 1557895 and 1557858 and National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant 1460674.

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