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March 10, 2011

Underwater Robots

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Homeland Security Sub (6.13.03) - Homeland security has been tightened on land and in the air, but what about in the water? That calls for autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs.

Snake, Rattle and Roll (12.16.99) - Snakelike robots may someday help find people lost in the wreckage of a disaster.

Firebots (4.22.99) - Imagine a robot that could someday prowl the halls of your home searching for fires. Here’s a contest where that idea is tested, as pint-sized fire-fighting robots race to snuff out candles.

  BBC Robot World: Underwater Robots

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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.”

Fetch2 AUV
The "Fetch2" AUV can discriminate between different types of fish.
image: VIMS
Bolstered by that success, the Navy is actively pursuing and testing new designs. It has an annual event, called “AUV Fest” where engineers from all over the country test their designs under similar ocean conditions. The Navy has also built a special test facility at the National Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Test and Evaluation Center near Seattle.

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.

crawler AUV on land
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.

This research appeared in a report to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, and was funded by the Department of Defense, Lockheed-Martin, and the National Science Foundation.

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