Docking Stations Let Sea Robots Recharge Batteries

From unmanned boats and mine-seeking robots to solar-powered surfboards that autonomously hunt sharks, the sea will soon be crowded with robotic vessels. But how will they power up when they're running low on battery life? The Battelle Memorial Institute and its Bluefin Robotics may have an answer.

The institute recently set up a portable robotic docking and recharging station in the Fore River near Boston to test a docking station that allows robotic vessels to stop and recharge their batteries during missions at sea. The concept is similar to how traditional boats might stop and refuel their engines.

The station also allows the vessels, which mainly are being used for research or reconnaissance, to transmit data to researchers or anyone else using the robots, Bob Geoghegan, the Battelle institute's manager of ocean engineering, told us. Vehicles also use the station to download data to be used for future missions.

The docking station looks a cage-like frame that houses the docked vehicle. An acoustic transmitter provides a signal used to guide the vessel safely to the dock. Coils on the station transmit energy to vehicle batteries, and a WiFi network allows the data exchange between the vessels and the dock, Geoghegan said. The network also allows onshore operators to monitor the docking station and send data to the vessels.

The Battelle institute used the Bluefin 12 automated vessel to test the stations on numerous occasions in September. The torpedo-like Bluefin 12 is about 12 inches in diameter and can be used in shallow or mid-depth waters.

Now that the station has been tested, Geoghegan said, his institute plans to make some upgrades and is working with partners to find appropriate use cases.

One interested party may be the US Navy, which is using a number of unmanned vessels and has plans to expand that use. Docking stations would help the Navy keep vessels at sea for a long time without having to worry about battery power. The Battelle institute, which already has a relationship with the Navy, recently tested a dual-mode submarine called the Proteus, which it hopes will serve as a testbed for future Navy unmanned underwater vehicles. The vessel is a collaboration between The Columbia Group and Bluefin.

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