There was a line of people signing up today to be part of the Marine Technology Society’s new committee on “Bio-Inspired Marine Systems,” and it’s easy to see why. Engineers are turning increasingly to nature’s designs as they try to solve the problems of unmanned underwater vehicles. I was just at a session on docking, in which they showed off the maneuverability virtues of a vehicle that propels itself by taking in and jetting out water, like a jellyfish. Design from nature is showing up everywhere – the triangular vehicle that has wings upturned at the ends like a ray, ones that wriggle like fish, on and on.
They are working on little underwater drones that swim like schools of fish, and the European Union even has a “SWARM” initiative to come up with more intelligent networked underwater vehicles.
There is a lot of alphabet soup in this underwater business, and it keeps changing. ROV is “remotely operated vehicle.” UV is ‘underwater vehicle,” and AUV means “autonomous underwater vehicle,” one that runs itself. The Navy, in its endless search for engineering specificity, now says UUV, for “unmanned” rather than “autonomous.” As several panelists have pointed out, with so many degrees and strains of autonomy now being developed, you need a more specific meaning. With “unmanned,” at least you know what you’re talking about, though most of these vehicles can’t get along purely without human intervention for all that long. They need to re-charge, dump data and be maintained.
Which brings me to docking, a big deal right now, and it’s not hard to see why. It would extend the life and range of these vehicles greatly if they could rendezvous with some sort of recharging and data receiving station. The technologies being tried are greatly varied, using blimps, encoded signals, LED lights and various forms of artificial intelligence to fill in the time gaps that appear as distance from with a remote operator increases.
Artificial intelligence comes in over and over again. A Battelle study looks at how to reduce the human element in a remotely operated vehicle with manipulator arms. This needs a pilot to navigate and position the vehicle and a co-pilot to work the arms. The Battelle project looks at ways to reduce the time when two people are required, by breaking down the tasks, and looking at what parts of them could be handled by artificial intelligence or design changes.
A major economic driver for this work is not just the cost but risk. Humans operate the boats that deploy the vehicles, and many of the tasks that underwater vehicles are designed for are currently done by human divers. These mechanical divers may not be as smart as the human ones, but they are more expendable, can have greater range and endurance, and they are evolving fast.
“Drones going underwater” is the way Andrew Ziegwied of ASV Global, put it. The popularity of aviation drones has pushed the technology so hard that there’s been lots of innovation and costs have come way down, with all sorts of stuff that was once expensive now available off the shelf. He fully expects the same sort of evolution to continue underwater. Ziegwied’s company is primarily a Louisiana defense contractor, but has expanded its business to the United Kingdom and Brazil. A number of the companies in the AUV business are rooted in Silicon Valley but branching out to San Diego, Monterrey Bay and other coastal locations.
I am pretty sure we’ll be hearing more about the “fish bots” being developed by Aquaai. They have a really nifty vehicle called Fishdrone, about 5 feet long, that’s shaped like a shark but they say may be useful for actually scaring sharks away from beaches.
And if you think that biomimicry design is a stretch, how about this one: The organisms in the muck at the bottom of the ocean are being looked at as a power source. You can generate a current simply by placing an anode in the sediment, and a cathode in the open water above it. These cathodes quickly gain a bio film that acts as a catalyst and increases the output. This prompted researchers at SPARWAR, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, to look at manganese and iron rather than the rare metals such as platinum and palladium that are customarily used as catalysts. And it’s working.