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  • Fish Navigation System Recreated for Submarines
Feb 2007
CHAMPAIGN, Ill., Feb. 21, 2007 -- Scientists have artificially duplicated the lateral line, a row of specialized sensory organs found in fish. The device could enhance the ability of submarines and unmanned robots to move underwater and avoid obstacles and predators.

A research team led by Chang Liu at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built the tiny structures.LiuandChang.jpg
Chang Liu, a Willett Scholar and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, holds one of the models that he and his postdoctoral research associate, Yingchen Yang, are using to test their artificial lateral line. Their research could assist autonomous underwater robots. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)
"Our development of an artificial lateral line is aimed at enhancing human ability to detect, navigate and survive in the underwater environment," said Liu, a Willett Scholar and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois. "Our goal is to develop an artificial device that mimics the functions and capabilities of the biological system."

In fish, the lateral line provides guidance for synchronized swimming, predator and obstacle avoidance, and prey detection and tracking. Equipped with an artificial lateral line, a submarine or underwater robot could similarly detect and track moving underwater targets, and avoid collisions with moving or stationary objects.

The artificial lateral line consists of an integrated linear array of microfabricated flow sensors, with the sizes of individual sensors and spacings between them matching those of their biological counterpart.

"By detecting changes in water pressure and movement, the device can supplement sonar and vision systems in submarines and underwater robots," said Liu, who also is affiliated with the university's Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, the Institute for Genomic Biology, and the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.BiologicalSensorModel.jpg
An illustration of the artificial lateral line developed at the University of Illinois that could give submarines and unmanned robots a fish-like ability to move underwater and detect predators. (Image courtesy of Chang Liu)
To fabricate the tiny, 3-D structures, individual components are first cast in place on sacrificial layers using photolithography and planar deposition. A small amount of magnetic material is electroplated onto each of the parts, which are then freed from the substrate by an etchant. When a magnetic field is applied, the induced torque causes the pieces to rotate out of the plane on tiny hinges and lock into place. Each sensor is integrated with metal-oxide-superconductor circuitry for on-chip signal processing, noise reduction and data acquisition. The largest array the researchers have built consists of 16 flow sensors with 1-mm spacing. Each sensor is 400 µm wide and 600 µm tall.

In tests, the researchers’ artificial lateral line was able to localize a nearby underwater vibrating source, and could detect the hydrodynamic wake (such as the wake formed behind a propeller-driven submarine) for long-distance tracking. With further advances in engineering, man-made underwater vehicles should be able to autonomously image hydrodynamic events from their surroundings, Liu said.

“Although biology remains far superior to human engineering, having a man-made parallel of the biological system allows us to learn much about both basic science and engineering,” Liu said. “To actively learn from biology at the molecular, cellular, tissue and organism level is still the bigger picture.”

Liu and colleagues at Illinois and at Bowling Green State University described their work in the Dec. 12, 2006, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The work was funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and DARPA. For more information, visit:

linear array
A solid-state video detector consisting of a single row of light-sensitive semiconductor devices, used in linear-array cameras.
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
A lithographic technique using an image produced by photography for printing on a print-nonprint, sectioned surface.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
1. A generic term for detector. 2. A complete optical/mechanical/electronic system that contains some form of radiation detector.
The processes in which luminous energy incident on the eye is perceived and evaluated.
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