Swimming robot opens new vistas at aquarium

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It isn't a fish, a shark or an eel.

The new neighbor roaming the coral reef inside at the PPG Aquarium is a yellow, sci-fi stingray-looking, underwater robot named CLEO.

It's part of a new initiative at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium that gives visitors an opportunity to assist with coral reef conservation while getting a hands-on feel for a scientist's job.

A team of graduate students, engineers and aquarists from the zoo and the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, developed ReefBot -- an interactive exhibit for children of all ages designed to research and explore coral reefs.

"I'm just delighted to be able to bring the underwater world of coral reefs to kids," said program manager Justine Kasznica "It's really exciting to watch children with the robot."

In the ReefBot exhibit, kids can do more than just pound on the glass and hope their favorite eel swims toward them. A big yellow console with a joystick and colorful buttons allows children to control CLEO -- whose name stands for Children Learning through Exploration and Observation.

They can see the "Open Water Habitat" through CLEO's eyes on a monitor in front of them, as opposed to viewing it through the thick pane of glass. The Open Water Habitat is the two-story tank across from the pool of touchable stingrays.

Children who see a fish that interests them can press a button that takes a picture and identifies the fish by matching it to a picture with facts on the computer screen next to the robot's monitor.

Children learn about fish they like while the robot is identifying fish and adding them to its database.

"It allows the robot to actively learn as the child is actually teaching the robot," Ms. Kasznica said.

The robot's database builds over time because of a classification software inside of it, said David Wettergreen, an associate research professor at the Robotics Institute who advised the team. Eventually, it will be able to identify fish by comparing them to what it already knows, he said.

While malfunctions prevented CLEO from entering the water during its introduction Thursday, the robot will be on display for several years in the aquarium.

The recognition technology, combined with the exhibit -- both designed by early-20-somethings -- is the first of its kind, said Ms. Kasznica.

The idea began in the summer of 2009 as the brainchild of zoo aquarist Ashley Kidd and several of her friends.

"We wanted to create an interactive exhibit for children that also was a test bed for field research," she said.

It's important for coral reef research because it can dive into areas for an extended period of time that divers can only go into for several minutes, said Mr. Wettergreen.

As a passionate conservationist, Ms. Kidd is excited about the chance for people to learn more about coral reefs while essentially helping a scientific experiment before it's used in real oceans.

"If people aren't excited or knowledgeable about their environment," she said "how can they be concerned about conserving it?"

She says it was the motivated team of collaborators, with the help of generous funding from Spark, a Sprout Fund program, that brought it into fruition.

"The passion for wanting to make this a reality is the only reason it's here," she said.

Emily Gibb: egibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.


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