The advent of robotics in the mainstream has arrived, and while the inherent challenges of building and operating robots in the marine environment lags robotics found on land and in the air, Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot is intent on doing its part to move forward the capabilities of unmanned underwater systems.
Born from the halls of academia, iRobot was founded in 1990 when Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists Colin Angle and Helen Greiner teamed up with their professor Dr. Rodney Brooks with the vision of making practical robots a reality. In 2009, iRobot generated more than $298m in revenue and employed more than 500.
Tom Frost, Program Manager, iRobot Maritime Systems, has spent his entire professional career with iRobot, a dozen years spent initially as a software engineer, coding for a DARPA project that led to the development of the Packbot, iRobot’s ubiquitous land-system that is designed for the battlefield, and counts more than 3,000 units delivered to the military and civil defense forces worldwide. It was Frost, who as program manager helped to usher the Packbot from the technology lab into a manufactured product line that is built and delivered with consistency and efficiency, that was chosen in 2008 to serve as program manager for the company’s new maritime systems offcice, which today includes:
“Today, my role in our maritime group is to oversee transfer of technology into manufactured products,” Frost said. “I have the opportunity to take some great concepts and superior technology and migrate it into a product that we are able to manufacture and ship.” Today the Seaglider is in full production; the Ranger UUV is still in the prototype stage, projected to enter manufacturing in 2011.
While iRobot is still a relatively new name in the field of unmanned underwater systems, Frost counts the company’s pedigree as a strategic advantage. “We have a history of delivering high quality robots in quantity,” he said. “iRobot is really one of the only companies that is pure robotics play. We pride ourselves on taking these technologies and manufacturing them in quantity.”
According to Frost, the main challenge in designing robots for use underwater lies in the ability and ease, or lack thereof, in communication, a factor which demands the development of an autonomous or tethered unit. With the evolution and acceptance of robotics in general in the marine environment, though, expectations continue to evolve, and Frost and the iRobot maritime team work around the clock to address emerging demands. “In addition to the issue of autonomy, one thing that is common in all of robotics is the need for more battery life,” Frost said. “Power (availability and consumption) is always a factor in robotics, and today in the underwater environment, (customers) are always looking to pack in more sensors and capabilities, which of course loops back to power.”
While the need for power is echoed across the industry, from military to scientific to commercial communities, Frost projects continual improvement in this area. “We’re making breakthroughs all of the time, and there is a push for more efficient batteries across nearly every industry, particularly the automotive industry,” he said. “There is a lot of money and pressure toward making better batteries. In my business, we take the best that is out in the field (lithium primary, non-rechargeable for its glider; rechargeable lithium for the Ranger AUV) and continually strive to extend the mission time and capability.”
As mission length increases, additional challenges emerge as well, such as dealing efficiently with the matter of biofouling. “With all long endurance UUVs, biofouling can be an issue, and with Seaglider’s we’re out for up to 10 months at a time,” Frost said. A top consideration in this regard is the depth at which the vehicle operates. In shallower water, fouling is much quicker and more aggressive, whereas the glider’s ability to dive to 1000m helps mitigate the problem to an extent, as at this depth “it causes a number of things to shake loose.”
Looking at Robotics as a whole, Frost counts advances in processor speed as the leading technological factor driving robotics forward during his career. “We are riding a delightful curve on processor speed, with a doubling of power every two years that allows us to do much more with the robots,” he said. Similarly, tremendous strides in sensor capacity and performance, advances in laser-based scanners (smaller, more durable, more accurate) and cameras as contributing factors. “Another big factor, though not a technology, is simply acceptance,” Frost said. “If you look at the way robots have been deployed in the last 10 years, there is a much greater acceptance of them in warfare and commercial applications.”
In the Field
iRobot systems are designed for a variety of missions: military, commercial and scientific, and the company has a number of significant success stories on its log. Most recently, it played a pivotal role in the collection and dissemination of information following the massive oil outflow in the Gulf of Mexico.
iRobot’s Seaglider Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) was used as a platform to collect ocean data in an effort to monitor the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. iRobot worked with Dr. Vernon Asper of the Marine Science Department at the University of Southern Mississippi (www.usm.edu) and Dr. Craig Lee from the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
In this role, Seaglider measured temperature, salinity and other ocean properties in 3D at depths of up to 1000m (3,290 ft.), allowing researchers to collect data at depths not easily achieved using traditional surface platforms or other UUVs, and to potentially detect the presence of oil and its movement in affected areas. Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico deployed Seaglider to locate and monitor large clouds of dispersed oil droplets believed to be at depths of approximately 700 meters (2,296 feet).
“With Seaglider, we are realizing new and important mission profiles that it can support,” said Joe Dyer, Chief Operating Officer at iRobot. “Traditionally, gliders have proven themselves to be very useful tools for researchers and oceanographers to collect ocean data. With this technology, we also see potential for the oil and gas industries to monitor existing lines and to detect new offshore oil sources.”
Unique to its use in the Gulf of Mexico was the fact that iRobot did not merely supply the vehicle, it also provided the glider pilots and made the information gathered publicly available via a number of websites.
To date, more than 120 Seagliders have been delivered to customers worldwide, including the U.S. Navy, government agencies and research organizations.