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Robotic Diver Signals Safer Future

Sending human and animal divers to sweep for mines may be on its way out, thanks to MIT research into robotic divers.

One of the world’s most dangerous occupations must be the naval diver who goes below the surface to search for explosives mounted on the hulls of warships. It’s important work, obviously, but it is also highly perilous. As mines get smaller and harder to find, the job becomes more dangerous as time goes on.

At least the brave men and women who do this have a choice. The world’s navies also use dolphins and seals to perform this dangerous task. Removing for a second the question of the welfare of these animals, it is a heavy burden on resources to maintain marine mammals on a boat.

So what’s the alternative? Robots, you say? You know robots are expensive right? Oh, you do? Well there is one more problem with that: robots are not very good at navigating around hulls without crashing into them. Combine that with the downward trend in mine size and you should probably forget you even mentioned robots…

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may be able to help however, with the development of a two-step process aimed at solving the mine-finding problem.

Dr Franz Hover and Brendan Englot from MIT used a robot called the Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (HAUV).  The researchers programmed the HUAV to generate a cloud of data points using traditional sonar. This was then processed to create a map the HAUV could use to scan at a distance of one metre.  It was tested on ships in San Diego and Boston, and early results are promising. It was able to reproduce the details of the hulls in great detail, including the tight spaces around the rudder and propellers where terrorists love to stash small explosives.

How will it fare in the real world? At the moment, it’s not as effective as conventional methods. The HAUV has a lot of trouble dealing with complex currents, so it looks like you won’t see any dolphins in the unemployment line this week.

The Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle was developed by MIT researchers and is made commercially by Bluefin Robotics.

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