To detect items on the ship's hull, HUL uses sonar. Researchers take these images and then process those signals into a grainy point cloud that at a low resolution, can determine something like a ship's propeller, but can't determine where something begins and ends, according to researchers. Therefore, seeing something smaller, such as a 10cm mine -- which is about the size of an iPod -- required a clearer picture from the robot's sonar, researchers said. HULS also would need finer images to avoid colliding with propellers and other protrusions from the ship.
To create this for the control system, researchers adapted an algorithm used in computer graphics to generate a 3D mesh model for their sonar data. The second phase of the research involved programming HULS to swim closer to the ship and navigate the hull based on this mesh model to cover each point on the model, which are spaced 10cm apart. By covering the hull in this way -- which researchers compared to mowing a lawn one strip at a time -- a robot could detect a small mine.
MIT researchers have tested the algorithms by creating underwater models of two vessels -- the Curtiss, a 183-meter military support ship in San Diego, and the Seneca, an 82-meter cutter in Boston. More tests are scheduled in the Boston Harbor this month before the new control system can be used in practice.
The Navy has a number of robotics and unmanned vehicle projects in the works, including another to develop an unmanned vessel to perform tasks too dangerous for manned ships. Indeed, the military is increasingly exploring the design of a new unmanned aircraft and other vehicles to keep military personnel out of harm's way.
This seems like a perfect use case for a robot partner when you consider the danger factor related to the underwater mines coupled with the difficulties humans could have navigating under water. Sounds like a lot of complex thinking went into the design, especially around the computer graphics algorithms and use of sensors.
Actually,this is a lot like those robots you can buy that autonomously sweep your floor. They are just much more sophisticated. Of course, they might want to look at other sensors, like vision. Since the robot can, on the second pass, get close to the hull, that could work.
What the Navy calls HULS resemble some of the existing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) we included in the nautical robots slideshow, especially the Bluefin Robotics hovering autonomous underwater vehicle (HAUV): http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=246206&image_number=13 Since this basic technology has been used by the military for some time, including for mine detection, I wonder why the Navy has decided to invent its own versions?
@Ann- From what I'm reading, the function is the same but the operation is different. The HAUV requires human interaction and the HULS moves underwater and around ships on its own.
I know the Navy struggles with keeping EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) units fully staffed with highly qualified candidates. Mechanizing underwater mine sweeping would require less manpower. And, the Navy could focus more training on the skilled EOD techs for other operations.
I get that this new algorithm takes a pass-by-pass approach (like cutting the lawn) over the old methods of big-image & zoom-in. But I'm not sure I understand the Navy's interest in locating explosive devices on ships which have already sunk. These impose Risk to someone-? And they've been 10 years in development on this-? I think I'm missing the value-added point of this project ,,,,,(?)
I was just thinking about these types of applications this week. It's not as elegant and sexy as underwater mine detection, but how soon before someone designs an autonomous crab trap?
After several seasons of Deadliest Catch, each time I see it on TV I think of the opportunity to design either a self-navigating underwater crab trap, or a self-navigating underwater crab trap deployment/collector. Now that the fishermen of Deadliest Catch can live off of their residuals from the Discovery Channel, I would assume that we have all of the technology required to design a system that:
1) Propels itself along the sea floor
2) Uses sensors to detect high populations of crab
3) Deploys a baited crab trap or simply parks its integrated trap on the sea floor
4) Detects when a predetermined number of crab have entered the trap
5) Collects the filled trap or launches off of the sea floor
6) Navigates back to port autonomously
Not only would it be lucrative, it would also reduce the fatalities in the #1 deadliest job in the US, commercial fishing.
I'll get the drawn butter ready if anyone would like to join me on this project.
I think that is good idea william, although i have never watched the deadliest catch i know how dangerous it is. I would help you but i am not an engineer and also i dont know much about how to make projects that require sensers, robots ect.
@JimT-The Navy's not concerned with previously sunken ships--they worry about currently deployed assets at anchor. Consider Fleet Week in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. A carrier group comes in fairly close to shore. A terrorist with rebreather equipment (no bubbles) could deploy a small limpet mine amongst the propellor/rudder structure. These autonomous robots hopefully can detect this if all other security measures have failed. I imagine that the detection algorithm in typically limited visibility and complex structure is what took 10 years to develop and test.
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