Designing future underwater vehicles: Principles and mechanisms of the weakly electric fish

Malcolm A. MacIver*, Ebraheem Fontaine, Joel W. Burdick

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

139 Scopus citations


Future underwater vehicles will be increasingly called upon to work in cluttered environments and to interact with their surroundings. These vehicles will need sensors that work efficiently at short range and be highly maneuverable at low speed. To obtain insights into principles and mechanisms of low-speed operation in cluttered environments, we examine a fish that excels in this regime, the black ghost knifefish Apteronotus albifrons. This fish hunts in dark or turbid water using a short-range self-generated electric field to sense its surroundings. Coupled with this unique mode of sensing is an unusual ribbon fin propulsion system that confers high multidirectional maneuverability at low speeds. To better understand the relationship between body morphology and common maneuvers of this fish, we utilized an idealized ellipsoidal body model, Kirchhoff's equations, and an optimal control algorithm for generating trajectories. We present evidence that common fish trajectories are optimal, and that these trajectories complement the sensory abilities of the fish. We also discuss prototypes of the sensing and propulsion systems of the fish with a view to providing alternative approaches for underwater vehicle design where high maneuverability in geometrically complex environments is needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)651-659
Number of pages9
JournalIEEE Journal of Oceanic Engineering
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2004


  • Active sensing
  • Autonomous underwater vehicles
  • Backward swimming
  • Biologically inspired robotics
  • Biorobotics
  • Electric fish
  • Electrosensory
  • Gymnotiform
  • Knifefish
  • Locomotion
  • Maneuverability
  • Remotely operated vehicles
  • Ribbon fin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ocean Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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