Scientists have developed a new generation of robot fish that can do more than just swim, it can also eat microplastics — providing a promising solution to the global problem of plastic ocean pollution.

The University of Surrey in the United Kingdom hosts a contest each year focused on developing robots that mimic things in nature. The 2022 winner, chemistry undergrad Eleanor Mackintosh, designed a robot that looks and acts like a fish and is skilled at filtering microplastics from water it sucks in through its gills. The robot is aptly named Gillbert.

Gillbert is 50 centimeters long and approximately the size of a full-grown pink salmon. It is shaped like a fish, and its movements mimic those of a fish. It moves through the water via remote control while its gills move in and out, drawing in water. Gillbert filters the microplastics — some as small as 2 millimeters — and stores them in an internal container.

Though Gillbert is operated by remote control, Robert Siddall, robotics lecturer at the University of Surrey and founder of the competition, hopes this robot fish inspires others to work toward gaining control of the plastic problem plaguing the world’s oceans.

But with an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, why focus on microplastics?

Ludovic Dumée, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Khalifa University, says although microplastics are small and difficult to see, they have an enormous impact.

“Microplastics, whose maximum dimension falls below 5 millimeters, are ultimately released into waterways and represent a major threat to global ecosystems, the entire food chain as well as many human industrial activities that rely on river or sea-water intake,” he says in a 2023 article in KUST Review.

Additionally, Dumée says human beings consume between 50,000 and 100,000 microplastics annually. This exposes humans to contaminants and increased cancer risks.

CAPTION: Plastic straws become microplastics IMAGE: Unsplash

Gillbert the fish is one possible solution to the microplastics problem, but more attention is required to solve this global issue.

The 2023 Natural Robotics Contest requires this year’s entries be inspired by the December 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada. The biodiversity conference addressed appropriation of a global biodiversity framework to deal with the main causes of nature loss. The 2023 contest is open for entries until July 1, and the winner is promised a working prototype based on their design.

A 3D print download of Gillbert is available for open access so others might improve upon the initial design.

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