Robot "fish" developed to improve pollution monitoring took to the water yesterday at the start of sea trials.
Scientists hope the new technology, which reduces the time it takes to detect a pollutant from weeks to seconds, will sell to port authorities, water companies, aquariums and anyone who wants to monitor water quality.
It could also have spin-offs for cleaning up oil spills, underwater security, diver monitoring or search and rescue at sea.
The fish, which are 1.5 metres long and currently cost £20,000 each, are designed to swim like real fish and are fitted with sensors to pick up pollutants leaking from ships or undersea pipelines. They swim independently, co-ordinate with each other, and transmit their readings back to a shore station up to a kilometre away. The fish can also map where they are and know how to return to base when their eight-hour battery life runs low.
"Chemical sensors fitted to the fish permit real-time, in-situ analysis, rather than the current method of sample collection and dispatch to a shore based laboratory," said Luke Speller, a scientist at British consultancy BMT Group, who led the project.
After the tests this week in the northern Spanish port of Gijon, the team will look at modifications needed to move the fish into commercial production, which they expect will reduce the cost of each unit.