It’s not often my job as a technology journalist requires me to wade out into a river in the British countryside. As they say, water and technology don’t mix.
Well, that’s all starting to change thanks to more robust waterproofing finding its way into consumer technology. I can use my phone in the shower (although I don’t), I can drop my e-reader in the bath (although I shouldn’t), and I can chuck a drone in a river (and I’m actually supposed to).
That’s because this is no ordinary drone, it’s an underwater drone called Biki by Robosea. The box has the (slightly ominous) tagline ‘We can see’ emblazoned on it, alongside the claim that Biki is the “World’s first bionic wireless underwater fish drone”. You can see why I called it in.
Getting to grips with a robot fish
Biki is like a robot of an inflated cyclops pufferfish that you can control with your phone. On the Kickstarter page Biki is white, so it's with great surprise that I open the box to find a bright yellow robo-fish sat waiting to be awoken and tossed into the murky depths.
There is a remote control that comes with Biki, which has a little wrist strap like you got on Nintendo Wii remotes, I imagine so that when you’re out for a swim in the ocean with your scale-less fishy friend you can have the remote control easily accessible without having it hinder your swimming hands (official term).
After charging Biki up, I booted up the accompanying app, and then spent a frustratingly long period of time trying to get my phone and Biki to talk to each other. It’s one of those systems where Biki makes its own Wi-Fi network that you have to connect to. It was not a fluid process and by the end of it I was ready to chuck Biki in a river, which was handy.
I'm contemplating putting on some fishing waders so I can get some proper depth, and have Biki swim around me, like I'm the Little Mermaid and Biki is Flounder, but my wife sagely convinces me not to.
In the end I opt for a hefty pair of wellington boots, and off we trudge to the picturesque River Itchen, Hampshire, UK. At 1.1kg, Biki isn’t the lightest thing to carry around with you, but I quite like having him tucked under my arm, and I'm on an adventure, so I don’t mind carrying my new robo-friend.
We get to the river and the moment of truth arrives...and Biki has forgotten my phone exists, again. I go through the series of stages of turning Biki on and off, looking at the LED for when it’s in pairing mode, opening my phone’s Wi-Fi, all the while my wife and dog are swiftly losing interest.
But then success! I’m connected. I gently lower Biki into the water and he starts swimming! I don’t know why, but he went from ‘it’ to ‘he’ as soon as he started swimming and you can’t convince me otherwise.
He’s clearly designed for swimming in the ocean, and the current of the Itchen is proving a little too much for the little fella although he's putting in a valiant effort.
Now, the Itchen is famous for being full of fish, so I'm really hoping for some amazing shots of fish swimming past, noticing Biki, adopting him as one of their own, but unfortunately I'm out of season, so Biki is just under there with nothing but some weed for company.
Which is a real shame, because Biki’s 4K camera does look like it's was capable of taking some really lovely images. Certainly the pictures I took when holding him just out of the water are nice to look at.
A fish out of water
Like the friendless schoolkid at his birthday party, I'm not going to let poor attendance get in the way of me and Biki having an awesome time, so I decide to test out his swimming capabilities.
I run into a slight problem in that the Wi-Fi connection doesn’t do brilliantly underwater once Biki gets more than a couple of meters away from me. I try moving over to the remote control, which doesn’t seem to work at all.
From looking at the Biki website I'm assured that “Biki is the most agile water fairy”, and that underwater “Biki Robotic Fish adopts the acoustic communication technique”. (I’ve since come to realise this means that you have to put both the remote and Biki underwater and then they communicate acoustically. I wish I’d figured that out in the river. And taken the waders.)
So I end up using my phone to make Biki swim about for a bit, but the current almost pulls him into the weeds, and no matter how frantic his little flippers flap he can’t get back to me. I wade to him, scoop him out of the water, and hold his cold, hard body against me. That sounds very morbid. He's fine, he’s just a robot.
Ultimately, I enjoyed playing with Biki a lot, and I think if I was in a body of water with less of a current and more to look at, he’d have been a brilliant companion. I can imagine if you’re going diving, the fact he can get down to 196ft, has lights to take photos of the dark ocean bottom, and has onboard storage for up to 32GB worth of images, he’d be really handy in helping you document your dive.
I do think his top swim speed is a bit of an issue, as he had to swim at full power just to stop the river from taking him away. And also, the Wi-Fi connection through water wasn’t great.
The crowdfunding projects are now closed, and Biki will soon be available for $1,024 (about £750, AU$1,300), a sizable jump from the Early Bird discount of $549, that came with the brilliant message: “You have fun, but we're still going to give you $475 off retail! Now get a BIKI and cheer up.”
- Rather a more traditional drone? Check out: Best drones 2018: DJI, Parrot and more for beginners and pros