ST. PAUL, Minn. — Researchers at the University of Minnesota and two other schools will use a $2.2 million grant to develop robotic boats to track radio-tagged common carp in an effort to help control their numbers.

The invasive, non-native common carp has muddied lakes, rivers and wetlands across North America for decades since they were brought here from Europe more than a century ago. The researchers also hope they might eventually be able to use the robotic approach to combat larger invasive Asian carp, which are spreading up the Mississippi River basin and threaten the Great Lakes.

“It’s a little bit of science fiction, but it makes sense,” said Peter Sorensen, a fish biology professor in the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University and Central State University in Ohio will also participate in the research funded by the National Science Foundation, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported today.

Sorensen said carp are social creatures that, as adults, bunch up in schools, or shoals. Tracking them with conventional boats is expensive and often difficult. The goal is to use the grant money to devise robotic boats capable of studying movement patterns and identifying large gatherings, enabling the fish to be netted and removed more easily. The researchers plan eventually to install solar panels on them so they can be self-powered.

Bottom-feeding adult carp uproot aquatic plants, stir up pollutants and increase turbidity, ruining habitat for waterfowl and aquatic creatures. They’re not prized for food here as they are in other cultures. So lakes are often poisoned or drained to get rid of them — usually with limited success.

Sorensen got interested in controlling common carp about five years ago when he took a trip to Australia, where the fish have overrun many water bodies.

“They take very seriously a problem that we largely neglect here,” said Sorensen, noting that Australians were placing radio tags in carp and releasing them to seek out large shoals. “I thought: ‘We’re smart, too. We can do some of this stuff.’ “

The robotics team is led by Volkan Isler, a computer science and engineering professor in the university’s College of Science and Engineering and resident fellow of the university’s Institute on the Environment. He said plenty of challenges await researchers, who must figure out ways to coordinate and refine the search capabilities.

If the approach works with common carp, Sorenson said, it might work on Asian silver and bighead carp, which are aggressive feeders that have been a growing concern since they escaped from Southern fish farms and sewage lagoons in the early 1970s and began migrating north up the Mississippi and its tributaries.

“Ideally, I could send a silver carp out there to find the rest of them for me,” he said. “One would lead to another and we would get them. It’s the kind of thing that I think we have to be thinking about with invasive fish.

“Frankly, these fish are much better at finding each other than we are at finding them.”