It’s not as sexy as Austin Powers’ Fembot foes or as loveable as WALL-E, but this robot can do something pretty amazing: save sailors’ lives at sea.
The third-generation Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or HAUV 3, can scan the bottom of ships for mines underwater — particularly important with what Navy officials describe as an emerging threat around Asia. Researchers at MIT developed the ’bot, which looks like an underwater flying saucer, with help from the Office of Naval Research and Bluefin Robotics, a Quincy, Mass.-based builder of autonomous underwater vehicles.
The robot, small enough for two sailors to carry, emits a signal from a sonar camera as it moves around the ship. Once it assesses the ship’s shape, it can move in closer and detect mines about the size of an iPhone. The system can scan any underwater structure from berthing areas to bridges to docks, said Franz Hover, an assistant professor in MIT’s mechanical engineering department. The technology used in the robot can also search the inside of underwater tanks, though the sensors may need a different body for that task. The technology is also applicable to searching for mines in open water.
Developers admit there are still limitations to its abilities.
The robot is not advanced enough to distinguish between a hull anomaly and a mine, so humans still need to view images relayed from the robot, Hover said. Also, while it works well to scan the majority of the ship, divers still perform better while inspecting complicated structures, such as the propeller or rudder, according to Hover’s graduate assistant, Brendan Englot.
The threat of limpet mines — devices attached to ship hulls — is an emerging one, especially within terrorist groups in Asia, said Thomas Swean, program officer and team leader for ONR’s Ocean Sensing and Systems Applications.
They have been used as far back as World War I and were used during World War II by Australian and British sailors to sink or damage seven Japanese ships during Operation Jaywick, according to the Australian Government’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
The Navy has a contract for 15 two-vehicle systems, Bluefin Robotics CEO David Kelly said. One system has been delivered and is being used by Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 in Norfolk, Va. A second system will be delivered to the Navy in early September. Each individual vehicle costs about $500,000, Kelly said.