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January 3, 2011
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image: Lockheed Martin
Homeland security has been tightened on land and in the air, but what about in the water? That calls for unmanned submarines called autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs.

“AUVs are essentially swimming computers. They’re underwater robots. They’re not tethered to the surface, they can swim 24-7, under all kinds of wind and wave and weather conditions,” says Mark Patterson, associate professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

AUVs work by sending sound waves into the ocean that bounce off anything swimming within 150 feet. When the sound waves return, a computer program turns them into an image. “That program can learn what things look like and it gets better with time,” says Patterson. The AUVs are able to “learn” because they are equipped with artificial neural networks, or ANNs. Scientists use a combination of enhancement algorithms, image processing, and the ANNs to teach the AUVs to recognize anything from a swimmer to a submarine.

image: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Some AUVs were recently used to hunt for ocean mines in the war with Iraq. Soon they’ll take some of the risk out of submarine work. “If there was a terrorist incident involving our ports or harbors, there may be a situation where you don’t want to send in boats to do the survey work or to assess what’s happened,” says Patterson. “You’d like to send an unmanned, untethered vehicle to gather data before you risk people and expensive assets, to go clean up or make sure things are safe.” Aside from gathering intelligence, AUVs can also scan the hulls of incoming trade ships for suspicious cargo.





As shown on PBS’s NOVA, German submarines sank thousands of ships during World War II. But by the end of the war, improved radar made them easy to find, and the life expectancy of a German submariner was barely 60 days. Tomorrow’s subs will have high-tech help.

“In the future,” says Patterson, “when AUVs are deployed from submarines, they will be able to travel into areas where the sub commander may not wish to risk taking his boat, and gather intelligence, perhaps all the way up to the water line, in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.”




Fetch2 AUV
The "Fetch2" AUV can discriminate between different types of fish.
image: VIMS
Marine biologists are also excited about AUVs, because these underwater robots can learn to recognize different types of fish without disturbing their environments. Patterson's team created an AUV called Fetch2. They've taught Fetch2 to recognize two fish species, jacks and sharks, and even tried to fool the AUV with other fish species, to no avail.

“In the future, there might be schools of AUVs swimming around and reacting and mapping the underwater environment in a way that a pod of dolphins goes and investigates a coral reef looking for food,” says Patterson.

Patterson is co-founder of Sias Patterson, Inc., a private company that makes and sells AUVs. His is one of a handful of private companies that grew from universities; Bluefin Robotics came out of MIT’s Sea Grant, and Hydroid, which produced the model used in the Iraq war, came out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The U.S. Navy has projected a need for 100,000 AUVs by 2013.

The development and testing of Patterson’s AUV has been supported by Sias Patterson, Inc., NOAA, and Marine Sonic Technology.


 
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