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We’ve all seen the military use tracking dogs on land, but what about
underwater? As this ScienCentral News video reports, the Navy’s newest
generation underwater robots fill the role very well.
Bloodhounds of the Sea
They look like everything from torpedoes to bomb disposal robots to small submarines,
but they’re not—they’re the Navy’s newest wartime
technology called “Autonomous Underwater Vehicles,” or AUVs.
Scientists have used similar robots for years, piloting small craft down to
parts of the ocean too deep or too dangerous for divers or small subs. But
the Navy is finding such craft useful in shallow waters, where man-made dangers
like underwater mines might be lurking to damage ships or kill naval divers.
Although still relatively new, one small torpedo-looking device called “Remus”
was used in Iraq, helping the Navy clear mines from the port of Umm Qasar,
and turning what could have been a seven-day clean-up into a two-day operation.
Kevin McCarthy, vice-president of marketing for Hydroid,
the company that built Remus, says the faster clean up allowed the military
to bring in “badly needed humanitarian supplies into Umm Qasar…so
it not only saved or protected Navy personnel, it really did enable the delivery
of humanitarian supplies much faster.”
The "Fetch2" AUV can discriminate between different types of fish. image: VIMS
The AUVs come in many shapes and styles, both because they serve different
purposes and because they are still being developed. Gary Trimble of Lockheed-Martin/Perry
Technologies is testing what looks like a cross between a large red plastic
bug and a kid’s toy. With small steerable rotors, Trimble’s craft
can slow nearly to a stop, something other craft can’t do. That, says
Trimble, lets them “get up close and personal” with objects like
the undersides of ships and check for explosives.
“We’re sort of like the bloodhound,” he explains, “We’ll
go in, sniff along, we’ll find what you want to look for and then we’ll
give you a good solid image of it."
It’s those images that make the AUVs valuable, giving people on ships
a better view than if they were there. Trimble explains, “The divers
actually don’t have the ability to do as well as we can do. The divers
have to kind of craw around and touchy feely. We can see that thing six to
eight meters (20 to 26 feet) in front of us.”
Coupled with the engineering challenges of designing AUVs is the difficulty
in communicating underwater. To “talk” with their underwater robots,
operators are limited to a bandwidth similar to Internet connections of the
early 1990s. That makes it difficult to transmit complex instructions to the
robot, or for the robot to send high-quality pictures back.
One AUV, the Seahorse II, developed by the Naval
Oceanographic Office, is truly autonomous. At 27 feet long and more than
a yard in diameter, it’s among the largest and most independent craft.
Richard Swanson, the director of the Ocean Collections division of the Naval
Oceanographic Office, explains, “We throw this vehicle in the water,
let it run a preprogrammed route and come back 72 hours later at a position
and pick it up.” During that whole time, it’s running without
communicating with its handlers.
A "crawler" AUV.
While the “swimming” craft have gotten
most of the attention, others are developing craft that “crawl”
along the ocean floor. These are able to crawl through the surf where the
water is too shallow for the “swimmers“ and still track down dangers.
Another advantage of the crawlers is that they can be launched from the shore.
Those designing the craft are now looking at the next generation of underwater
robots—ones that can do more than identify something dangerous like
a land mine—but can also destroy it.