September 1, 2006 Computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering students at the University of Florida have built a fully automated underwater vehicle. Driven by five thrusters and controlled by complex electronics, the bathyscaphe can locate the source of sounds, investigate leaking pipes, and perform other civilian and military tasks that would be too dangerous for manned submergibles, especially during an emergency such as a hurricane
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A Russian submarine is trapped at the bottom of the sea, hurricanes crumble weak levees, and pipes leak. Most of these situations are too dangerous to send in a diver to investigate, but robots are becoming a reality. The military is using them on a daily basis, and now, the newest wave of robots may be diving into the ocean.
"You don't want to put somebody in the water. That's some of the worst, harshest environments. You can instead have a robot do it," says Eric Schwartz, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
University of Florida computer, electrical and mechanical engineering students built the future of robotic underwater vehicles, called the SubjuGator. It's a submarine that's completely autonomous, working without any human involvement, and is controlled by 10 microprocessors and one computer. The key components are five thrusters and a highly involved electronics unit.
UF students tested it in a pool and trained it to locate underwater sounds, as well as breaks in pipelines or walls.
"We can go every other way. We can go forward. We can turn this way and that way. We can rotate about this axis..." Schwartz says. "It's programmed. It's basically trained you're trained. We say this is what a pipe looks like. This is what a pipe doesn't look like. This is what a box looks like."
From there, the SubjuGator can track down what it's looking for. And one day a sub like this could help to rescue trapped sailors, repair levees, and find oil leaks before any damage is done.
The applications for a sub like the subjugator are endless. According to Schwartz, they could help tap into oil in the ocean and even run undercover missions for the Navy.
BACKGROUND: Students at the University of Florida, Gainesville, are leading the design of the next generation of robotic underwater vehicles. Eight electrical and computer engineering students designed and built a 30-pound submarine, called the Subjugator, which placed first in a national competition of student-built robotic submarines.
WINNING DESIGN STRATEGY: One of the competition's main objectives was to build a robot that could find an underwater sound-generating device (called a "pinger") in a murky pond and then rise to the surface just above the pinger. The Florida team was one of three that succeeded, but they won because the Subjugator was at least 40 pounds lighter than the other finalists. The Florida students deliberately incorporated the electronics into a small shell to keep size and weight to a minimum, and they built their own electronics, rather than buying parts off the shelf. In addition to the electronics, the Subjugator has five thrusters for better directional control, and powered by lithium polymer batteries.
AUTOMATED ADVANTAGES: The Subjugator is still a research prototype, but it points the way toward a future in which smart, compact robotic submarines could be used to repair underwater pipelines. Remotely-operated submarines have the ability to lend assistance in underwater situations that are too dangerous or too deep for human divers. However, current models require a cable or other communications link to the operator at the surface. The next step is to make such submarines capable of navigating and completing tasks without human assistance. The biggest challenge is programming the subs to "see" and react to objects or changes in the terrain. This is difficult for robots on land, and even harder to accomplish underwater because of limited visibility and problems with controlling the robotic vessel.
HOW ROBOTS WORK: Robots are made of roughly the same components as human beings: a body structure with moveable joints; a muscle system outfitted with motors and actuators to move that body structure; a sensory system to collect information from the surrounding environment; a power source to activate the body; and a computer "brain" system to process sensory information and tell the muscles what to do. Robots are manmade machines intended to replicate human and animal behavior. Roboticists can combine these basic elements with other technological innovations to create some very complex robotic systems.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.