The reservoir heroes

May 23, 2011 - via INESC Porto

In May, the underwater robot will depart for Brazil. Within two years, TriMARES will have made history in the exploration of dam structures and reservoirs.
Is TriMARES a robotic submarine or an underwater robot? At the INESC Porto laboratory this is not what is occupying the researchers time: the robot was developed by the Robotics Unit that has now brought together researchers from the Higher Education Engineering Institute in Porto (ISEP) and INESC Porto. TriMARES can be used in both autonomous mode, to follow a predefined route underwater, or it can be operated using a remote joystick. In May, TriMARES will leave the test tank for trials in the natural habitat in Angra dos Reis, Brazil. The project will be complete in two years and the new robot will have become one of the main tools used to collect data in the sub aqua environment at the Lajeado Dam in Tocantins, also in Brazil.   
The TriMARES project began in the summer of 2010. The project was commissioned by the Lajeado Consortium, following the integration of INESC Porto researchers into a research group led by the Brazilian University of Juiz de Fora. TriMARES was based on a previous project involving an underwater submarine, MARES, consisting of one single body. In order to incorporate the onboard computers and the sensors needed for the missions, the researchers from Porto decided to create a robot with three bodies – and that is where the inspiration for the name TriMARES came from.
Nuno Cruz, a researcher at INESC Porto, states that the new robot is not only more efficient at collecting data than humans, but it also beats rival robots in its versatility: “There is no other robot that is autonomous, with a sonar range of dozens of kilometres, video cameras and other devices that consume large amounts of energy and at the same time can be remotely operated (ROV) with a joystick to inspect the two kilometre wall of the Lajeado dam”.
In addition to the “two in one factor”, operators only need a short course to learn how to operate TriMARES in ROV mode. “Traditional ROVs require specialist operators, but some companies cannot offer this training or are unable to hire professionals with experience in operating the robots”, adds Nuno Cruz.
TriMARES currently has batteries and two computers on board. The first computer controls the equipment needed to follow the predefined routes for the different missions and it also monitors the sensors that check the status of the robot’s various components (batteries, leaking, temperature, etc). This computer interprets the data and controls the mission plans that pass through predefined geographic points.
The second computer controls the sensors that the Lajeado Consortium considered important to monitor the underwater habitat. Aníbal Matos, a researcher at INESC Porto, adds that “as TriMARES has an open structure, we can incorporate new components or sensors at any time”.
The project may also involve creating a database to catalogue the condition of specific geographic points in the reservoir which would serve for future comparison. This would make it possible to predict the effect the water quality could have on the production of energy by the dam. All of this information will be collected using sonar, high quality cameras and video cameras to scan the reservoir bed, and sensors that can measure the variables that affect the water quality at any time.
TriMARES was developed to work in reservoirs or lakes, but at INESC Porto there is no doubt that this same concept could also be used in the sea. The next two years will certainly lead to new projects for the Robotics Unit. “Soon we will be able to guarantee that the robot works and discover what it can and cannot do”, claims Aníbal Matos”

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