Submarine back in safe hands

December 16, 2011 - via Noosa News

TO STARTLED North Peregian lifeguards and beach walkers, it looked like it came from outer space or at least the set of a science fiction movie. And in fact this hi-tech water-based Wall-E was washed up and way out of its normal depth, but the AUV Sirius may yet be reprogrammed again to map the vast underwater reaches of Australia's drowned ocean landscapes.

This wayward robotic self-operating submarine found on Saturday was on Tuesday reunited with its human minder who was delighted that all is not lost. It was a greatly relieved Associate Professor Stefan Williams, a robotics engineer and researcher from the University of Sydney who was earnestly examining the Sirius at the Sunshine Coast council's Noosaville depot Tuesday morning.

Whereas Pixar's animated Wall-E was left behind on a trashed earth to clean up after our mess, this silent servant of mankind has been all over the sea floor helping researchers get a better handle on the effect of climate change before it wrecks our marine environment.

That was until its final dive off Moreton Island more than two weeks ago when it suddenly dropped out of sight after surfacing from its final dive of that research mission. "It looks alright - there's a little bit of cracking and damage to the shell," Assoc Prof Williams said of his $500,000 "baby" built in the United States but fitted out with latest Aussie camera wizardry which allows scientists to discover what lies beneath. "But all the sensitive instruments all look to be alright, but I won't be able to tell until we get it back to the lab. "We'll have to fire everything up and really take some time and check each system."

For this latest foray into the ocean abyss, Assoc Prof Williams and his robotics team fitted out the electric-powered Sirius with longer-life, but slightly heavier batteries. "We took off some weight, and it seemed to be working alright," he said. "Either something flooded, although I'm not seeing any real flooding here, or because it rained pretty heavily it might have made it a little too heavy. We've never lost it like this before.

"It operates without being tethered to the support vessel, so we can just put in and do surveys."

Assoc Prof Williams said his team works around Australia with ichthyologists and biologists. "We help show them what's on the sea floor, whatever is growing like coral reefs or kelp."

The university team had been faced with the prospect of having to build a new sea robot from scratch - something that would have cost $350,000 in components and a further $150,000 in work resources.

That was before the Sirius surprised them by bobbing up on the Sunshine Coast rather than somewhere down south of the Gold Coast as anticipated. "It all depends on the currents, I think they're pretty complex around here," Assoc Prof Williams said. "I was very happy to get that call (from the Sunshine Coast Daily) last Saturday to say it had been found."

Perhaps one improvement the academics could consider as they spend their Christmas down-time refloating their research, is to take their cue from ET and allow the Sirius to phone home next time it gets lost.

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Author:Peter Gardiner

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