Could the tiny drone fish detect dam problems?

A while back this blog mentioned the use of aerial drones for inspecting dams in remote areas to determine whether they are developing problems that could lead to failure.

Now a publication called Federal Computer Week ( has picked up on a research paper about a new drone that “swims with the fishes” in a good way.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Sensor Fish.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Sensor Fish.

“The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Sensor Fish is a small tubular device that analyzes the physical stresses fish experience when they swim through hydroelectric structures on rivers,” FCW reports. “Millions of salmon must traverse dams in the region every year. Most of those dams were built in the 1970s or earlier and are undergoing relicensing, which requires evaluation and modifications to meet updated environmental laws.

“Lab officials said the biggest threat to salmon and other fish swimming through the facilities are not the huge spinning blades on hydroturbines but the abrupt pressure changes in hydroturbine chambers. The data generated by the new drone fish could help in redesigning those chambers.”

The drone fish is just 3.5 inches long and 1 inch in diameter and weighs 1.5 ounces, so it more closely mimics a juvenile salmon. The drone captures more than 2,000 measurements per second and can withstand 174 pounds per square inch of pressure and more than 200 times the force of the earth’s gravity. It can also record temperatures between -40 and 260 degrees F.

So, would a similar device also be able to detect differences or deteriorating conditions in proximity to a dam that would suggest a closer look to see if structural problems are developing? Most hydroelectric dams undergo rigorous regular inspections because they are federally regulated. State-regulated, hydro or non-hydro dams are usually inspected at least every two years if they are classified as High-Hazard Potential. A device such as the drone fish might provide an added dimension to these inspections and help spot problems before they become obvious on the surface.

Federal Computer Week article

American Institute of Physics’ Review of Scientific Instruments paper