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Student wins design prize for microplastic collecting robot fish

A student at the University of Surrey has designed a robot fish capable of filtering waterways to collect microplastics. The digital code is open source too, so anyone with access to a 3D printer can create their own.

Microplastics are an ecological menace that have only really entered global discourse in the last few years.

Making up close to 92% of the estimated 5.25 trillion plastic objects floating on the ocean’s surface, these tiny traces of polymer toxify waterways globally and harm biodiversity. A concerning study back in March even detected microplastics in the blood of most human participants.

Getting any real stranglehold on the plastic crisis, we now know, relies on our ability to collect these tiny fragments of plastic as well as standard throwaway items.

As of today, however, there’s no wide-scale standard for removing it and we’re still weighing up a bunch of different solutions.

Thankfully, another such project has recently emerged from an unlikely avenue: a student design assignment at the University of Surrey. Robotics professor Dr. Robert Siddall tasked his class to submit ideas for practical devices inspired by animals, and the results did not disappoint.

An ingenious design by Eleanour Mackintosh immediately stood out and grabbed first prize among countless international entries, meaning the university had to bring it to life.

It has now transformed from the principal stage on paper into several different prototypes. Her idea involved using 3D-printed robot fish to autonomously swarm waterways and siphon microplastics.

Around the size of an actual salmon, the device constantly cycles water through a set of artificial, mesh-lined gills, depositing microplastics in an internal container as it swims.

Removed at regular intervals, microplastics can then be recycled by specialist companies before Gillbert is returned to action.

Motors keep both sets of fins perpetually moving, and an AI connected to frontal sensors prevents the unit from crashing into objects in the wild. Amusingly dubbed by Mackintosh as ‘Gillbert,’ it also glows… just because.

In the spirit of openness and global collaboration, Gillbert’s initial design is open source so anyone can create their own iteration of the robot fish – provided they have access to a 3D printer, and permission to go big.

Speaking on the competition, Siddall stated: ‘We don’t know where the vast majority of plastic dumped into our waterways ends up. We hope that this robo-fish and its future descendants are the first steps in the right direction to helping us to find and, eventually, control this plastic pollution problem.’

The Natural Robotics Contest is returning again next year, so perhaps start loading your ideas now.

A trap-scrapping rover for poaching hot-spots, a gliding carbon capture device? The sky’s the limit.