‘Robot’ fish developed in Richland will be used by researchers worldwide

With multiple rivers running through eastern Washington, dams are a common sight.

Hydropower is the world’s largest renewable energy source, and dams in the Columbia River Basin alone account for a little more than one third of all U.S. hydropower.

However, for the salmon traveling downstream these power sources serve as a bit of an obstacle.

“Fish can get injured by the rotary blade, and they can also get injured by large pressure drops around the turbine blades,” said Daniel Deng, mechanical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. “The pressure change is equivalent to shooting the fish from here to Mt. Everest.”

Additionally, by 2020 more than 70 percent of dams in the U.S. will be over 50 years old, which is old for a dam.

“To replace or upgrade the aging facilities and develop better fish-friendly turbines, we have to understand the physical conditions that fish experience,” said Deng.

Enter the “sensor fish,” created by Deng and his team at PNNL.

It’s about the size of a migrating juvenile salmon, and it features multiple sensors that allow researchers to know almost exactly what a fish is experiencing as it passes over a dam. It collects data on water pressure, acceleration, rotation and temperature.

‘Robot’ fish developed in Richland will be used by researchers worldwide

Once the device passes through the dam, it can become buoyant and rise to the surface. It will also flash lights and send out radio waves so it can be found and re-used multiple times.

The technology was first created in 2014 and has been used at dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers for the past few years.

“Researchers provide the scientific information to turbine designers so they can design better turbines,” said Deng. “They also provide the information to turbine operators so they can operate the dams to maximize the power generation with minimum impact on the fish.”

It was recently licensed to Advanced Telemetry Systems (ATS) through a process called technology transfer, which enables federally-funded research to be made commercially available. The lab has already shared technologies with researchers in Australia, Brazil, Germany and East Asian countries.

For more information on the sensor fish, as well as other fish technologies developed by PNNL, click here.

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