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Biomimetic Sensors: Active Electrolocation of Weakly Electric Fish as a Model for Active Sensing in Technical Systems

Journal of Bionic Engineering
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/s1672-6529(07)60018-3
  • Biomimetic
  • Weakly Electric Fish
  • Sensory System
  • Electrolocation
  • Sensor
  • Biology
  • Design
  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Medicine


Abstract Instead of vision, many nocturnal animals use alternative senses for navigation and object detection in their dark environment. For this purpose, weakly electric mormyrid fish employ active electrolocation, during which they discharge a specialized electric organ in their tail which discharges electrical pulses. Each discharge builds up an electrical field around the fish, which is sensed by cutaneous electroreceptor organs that are distributed over most of the body surface of the fish. Nearby objects distort this electrical field and cause a local alteration in current flow in those electroreceptors that are closest to the object. By constantly monitoring responses of its electroreceptor organs, a fish can detect, localize, and identify environmental objects. Inspired by the remarkable capabilities of weakly electric fish in detecting and recognizing objects, we designed technical sensor systems that can solve similar problems of remote object sensing. We applied the principles of active electrolocation to technical systems by building devices that produce electrical current pulses in a conducting medium (water or ionized gases) and simultaneously sense local current density. Depending on the specific task a sensor was designed for devices could (i) detect an object, (ii) localize it in space, (iii) determine its distance, and (iv) measure properties such as material properties, thickness, or material faults. Our systems proved to be relatively insensitive to environmental disturbances such as heat, pressure, or turbidity. They have a wide range of applications including material identification, quality control, non-contact distance measurements, medical applications and many more. Despite their astonishing capacities, our sensors still lag far behind what electric fish are able to achieve during active electrolocation. The understanding of the neural principles governing electric fish sensory physiology and the corresponding optimization of our sensors to solve certain technical tasks therefore remain ongoing goals of our research.

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