Flying robots are all over the news these days. But UAVs/drones are hardly the only autonomous robotics solutions out there. Driving robots like the one below by Starship Technologies has already driven more than 5,000 miles in 39 cities across 12 counties, gentling moving around hundreds of thousands of people in the process of delivering small packages. I’m already in touch with Starship and related companies to explore a range of humanitarian applications. Perhaps less well known, however, are the swimming robots that can be found floating and diving in oceans, lakes and rivers around the world.
These swimming robots are often referred to as maritime or marine robots, aquatic robots, remotely operated vehicles and autonomous surface water (or underwater) vehicles. I’m interested in swimming robots for the same reason I’m interested in flying and driving robots: they allow us to collect data, transport cargo and take samples in more efficient and productive ways. Flying Robots, for example, can be used to transport essential vaccines and medicines. They can also collect data by taking pictures to support precision agriculture and they can take air samples to test for pollution. The equivalent is true for swimming and diving robots.
So I’d like to introduce you to this cast of characters and will then elaborate on how they can and have been used to make a difference. Do please let me know if I’m missing any major ones—robots and use-cases.
This tethered diving robot can reach depths of up to 100 meters with a maximum speed of 2 meters per second (7 km/hour). The Trident has a maximum run-time of 3 hours, weighs just under 3 kg and easily fits in a backpack. It comes with a 25 meter tether (although longer tethers are also available). The robot, which relays a live video feed back to the surface, can be programmed to swim in long straight lines (transects) over a given area to generate a continuous map of the seafloor. The OpenROV software is open source. More here.
This remotely operated swimming robot has an maximum cruising speed of just under 5km per hour and weighs 25kg. The ROV is a meter long and has a run time of approximately 4 hours. The platform has full digital and audio recording capabilities with a sonar a scanner that can record a swatch of ~60 meter wide at a depth of 180 meters. This sturdy robot has been swimming in one of the fastest changing glacier lakes in the Himalayas to assess flood hazards. More here. See also MarineTech.
Hydromea Vertex AUV
This small swimming robot can cover a volume of several square kilometers at a depth of up to 300 meters with a maximum speed of 1 meter per second (3.5 km/hour). The Vertex can automatically scan vertically and horizontally, or any other angle for that matter and from multiple locations. The platform, which only weighs 7 kg and has a length of 70 cm, can be used to create 3D scans of the seafloor with up to 10 robots operating in simultaneously in parallel thanks to communication and localization technology that enables them to cooperate as a team. More here.
Liquid Robotics Wave Glider
The Wave Glider is an autonomous swimming robot powered by both wave and solar energy, enabling it to cruise at 5.5 km/hour. The surface component, which measures 3 meters in length, contains solar panels that power the platform and onboard sensors. The tether and underwater component enables the platform to use waves for thrust. This Glider operates individually or in fleets to deliver real-time data for up to a year with no fuel. The platform has already traveled well over one million kilometers and through a range of weather conditions including hurricanes and typhoons. More here.
This tethered robot weighs 5kg and can operate at a depth of 100 meters with a maximum of 1.5m per second (3.5km/hour). Tethers are available at a length of 30 meters to 50 meters. The platform has a battery life of 3 hours and provides a live, high-definition video feed. The SeaDrone platform can be easily controlled from an iOS tablet. More here.
Clear Path Robotics Heron
This surface water swimming robot can cruise at a maximum speed of 1.7 meters per second (6km/ hour) for around 2 hours. The Heron, which weighs 28kg, offers a payload bay for submerged sensors and a mounting system for those above water. The robot can carry a maximum payload of 10kg. A single operator can control multiple Herons simultaneously. The platform, like others described below is ideal for ecosystem assessments and bathymetry surveys (to map the topography of lakes and ocean floors). More here.
The Saildrone navigates to its destination using wind power alone, typically cruising at an average speed of 5.5 km/hour. The robot can then stay at a designated spot or perform survey patterns. Like other robots introduced here, the Saildrone can carry a range of sensors for data collection. The data is then transmitted back to shore via satellite. The Saildrone is also capable of carrying an additional 100 kg worth of payload. More here.
EMILY, an acronym for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, is a robotic device used by lifeguards for rescuing swimmers. It operates on battery power and is operated by remote control after being dropped into the water from shore, a boat or pier, or helicopter. EMILY has a maximum cruising speed of 35km per hour (much faster than a human lifeguard can swim) and function as a floatation device for up to 4-6 people. The platform was used in Greece to assist in ocean rescues of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. More here. The same company has also created Searcher, an autonomous marine robot that I hope to learn more about soon.
Platypus manufactures four different types of swimming robots one which is depicted above. Called the Serval, this platform has a maximum speed of 15 km/hour with a runtime of 4 hours. The Serval weighs 35kg and can carry a payload of 70kg. The Serval can use either wireless, 3G or Edge to communicate. Platypus also offers a base-station package that includes a wireless router and antenna with range up to 2.5 km. The Felis, another Playtpus robot, has a max speed of 30km/hour and a max payload of 200kg. The platform can operate for 12 hours. These platforms can be used for autonomous mapping. More here.
The aim of the AquaBot project is to develop an underwater tethered robot that automates the tasks of visual inspection of fish farm nets and mooring systems. There is little up-to-date information on this project so it is unclear how many prototypes and tests were carried out. Specs for this diving robot don’t seem to be readily available online. More here.
There are of course many more marine robots out there. Have a look at these other companies: Bluefin Robotics, Ocean Server, Riptide Autonomous Systems, Seabotix, Blue Robotics, YSI, AC-CESS and Juice Robotics, for example. The range of applications of maritime robotics can be applied to is also growing. At WeRobotics, we’re actively exploring a wide number of use-cases to determine if and where maritime robots might be able to add value to the work of our local partners in developing countries.
Take aquaculture (also known as aquafarming), for example. Aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of global food production. But many types of aquaculture remain labor intensive. In addition, a combination of “social and environmental pressures and biological necessities are creating opportunities for aquatic farms to locate in more exposed waters further offshore,” which increases both risks and costs, “particularly those associated with the logistics of human maintenance and intervention activities.” These and other factors make “this an excellent time to examine the possibilities for various forms of automation to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of farming the oceans.”
Just like land-based agriculture, aquaculture can also be devastated by major disasters. To this end, aquaculture represents an important food security issue for local communities directly dependent on seafood for their livelihoods. As such, restoring aquafarms can be a vital element of disaster recovery. After the 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, for example, maritime robots were used to “remediate fishing nets and accelerate the restarting of the fishing economy.” As further noted in the book Disaster Robotics, the robots “cleared fishing beds from debris and pollution” by mapping the “remaining debris in the prime fishing and aquaculture areas, particularly looking for cars and boats leaking oil and gas and for debris that would snag and tear fishing nets.”
Ports and shipping channels in both Japan and Haiti were also reopened using marine robots following the major earthquakes in 2011 and 2010. They mapped the debris field that could damage or prevent ships from entering the port. The clearance of this debris allowed “relief supplies to enter devastated areas and economic activities to resume.” To be sure, coastal damage caused by earthquake and tsunamis can render ports inoperable. Marine robots can thus accelerate both response and recovery efforts by reopening ports that represent primary routes for relief supplies, as noted in the book Disaster Robotics.
In sum, marine robotics can be used for aquaculture, structural inspections, estimation of debris volume and type, victim recovery, forensics, environmental monitoring as well as search, reconnaissance and mapping. While marine robots remain relatively expensive, new types of low-cost solutions are starting to enter the market. As these become cheaper and more sophisticated in terms of their autonomous capabilities, I am hopeful that they will become increasingly useful and accessible to local communities around the world. Check out WeRobotics to learn about how appropriate robotics solutions can support local livelihoods.