Hello, this is ‘Charlie’ – CIA’s Robot Catfish

-By Lalit Koundaal

It all originated for military applications where human life or pilot’s life was considered as paramount and various options were being studied to save precious lives of pilots. This gave birth to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) or drones which continue to keep us spellbound with the technological advances and vast applications on the anvil. 

All this is for air, there is something for the water as well- Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) sometimes called Underwater Drones. These are submersible vehicles that can operate without a human occupant. These UUV’s can be operated remotely having human or nil intervention. 

Why are we talking about, UUV’s?

Well, because the CIA has published some information about already developed and used robotic catfish named Charlie, which was an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) set out to collect water samples. So we will not assume that ‘Charlie Catfish’ has retired.

 The name Charlie is believed to have come from a popular commercial for the StarKist brand (between 1961 and the 1980s), where the talking cartoon mascot named Charlie appeared as a beret-and-shades who has such good taste he wants to be caught and turned into a can of StarKist. It never happens because StarKist is looking for fish that tastes good, not fish with good taste. 

The punchline or the catchphrase: “Sorry, Charlie!” became part of the American lexicon.

You need to see it to believe it, here is the link –

Charlie must have appeared like the perfect code name for an already popular commercial when the CIA’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs started conducting some fish-focused research in the 1990s. The only exception here is that the CIA’s Charlie was a catfish and a robot.


The basic biomimetic robotic fish is made up of three parts: a streamlined head, a body, and a tail. The head is often made of a rigid plastic material (i.e. fiberglass) and contains all control units including a wireless communication module, batteries, and a signal processor. The body may be made of multiple jointed segments, which are connected by servomotors. Servomotors control the rotation angle of the joint. Some designs have pectoral fins fixed on both sides of the body to ensure stability in the water. An oscillating caudal (tail) fin connected with joints and driven by a motor provides the motive power.

Unfortunately, as Charlie the robot catfish’s missions are still classified, no public information about achievements during its missions can be brought out. However, broad specifications included speed, endurance, maneuverability, depth control, navigational accuracy, autonomy, and communications status. 

The “fish” had a pressure hull, ballast system, and communications system within the main part of its body and a propulsion system in its tail. The ‘Charlie’ measures 24 inches (61 cm), whereas the real catfish can measure up to 60 inches long or more. 

Why do we need such vehicles?

The CIA was not alone in its pursuit of UUVs nor was it the first agency to do so. In the United States, such research began in the 1950s, with the U.S. Navy’s funding of technology for deep-sea rescue and salvage operations. Other projects looked at sea drones for surveillance and scientific data collection. It’s but obvious that the world’s oceans are largely off-limits to crewed vessels and could only be fathomed with robots.

Robot Fish Developments in the Past

robot fish is a type of bionic robot that has the shape and locomotion of a living fish. Since MIT’s, first published research in 1989, there have been more than 400 articles published about robot fish. According to these reports, approximately 40 different types of robot fish have been built, with 30 designs having only the capability to flip and drift in the water. CIA’s Charlie is not new in the segment of existing Robot Fish. Some more names are-

Robo Tuna –

It has the shape and function of the real tuna fish which was designed and built by a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It has a complicated system of stainless-steel cables and pulleys which act as muscles and tendons. The outer body is composed of a flexible layer to emulate the flexibility and smoothness of tuna skin. It is controlled by six powerful servomotors. It can adjust its motions in real-time because of force sensors positioned on the side of the ribs which provide continuous feedback to the robot.

Robot Fish Tuna Cr: Sander van den Berg

Robot Pike-

It is the world’s first free-swimming robot fish designed and built by a team of scientists again at MIT. It is controlled by human intervention. The complex computer system interprets the commands and returns the signals to each engine in the robot fish. It has a skin composed of silicone rubber and a spring-wound fiberglass exoskeleton which makes the robot fish flexible. It can accelerate at a rate of 8-12 m/s in the water, but it cannot avoid obstructions because it is not equipped with sensors.

The Essex Robotic Fish-

It was built by scientists at Essex University. It can swim autonomously like a real fish, and achieve different types of displacement. It has four computers, five motors, and over ten sensors placed in various places on the body. It can swim around a tank and avoid objects, and can also adapt to uncertain and unpredictable stimuli in its environment. It is intended to have a broad range of uses, including seabed exploration, detection of leaks in oil pipelines, sea life exploration, and spying.

The Jessiko 

This is an underwater robot created by the French start-up company Robotswim. It is only 22 cm long, making it one of the smallest robotic fish in the world. It is very easy to control, can travel backward, shift colors, and imitate living fish performance. Because of these functions, it can share emotions and even interact with people. It exhibits artificial intelligence and potential communication uses, giving it the ability to swim with more than ten fish to create exciting choreography and light effects, using fins to navigate throughout the water. It has demonstrated that a small robot fish can swim autonomously for hours.

Jessiko Fish Robot
Cr: Pininterest

Conclusion –

The controllable machines can be made to “look, sound, or even smell” like animals. We can obtain a better perception of animal behavior by turning to robot used in place of live animals because robots can produce a steady response in a set of repeatable actions. Moreover, with various field deployments and a greater degree of independence, robots hold the promise of assisting behavioral studies in the wild. 

It’s not surprising that the CIA would choose a robot shaped like a fish for its operations. After all, there have been many instances where CIA’s man-made technology has been inspired by nature. We’ve come across tons of examples in the past, like robots designed to swim like jellyfish, and robotic tunas made by Homeland Security to help protect American harbors.







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