New Aquatic Robots Designed To Patrol Nation’s Ports

Engineers at MIT have developed an aquatic robot that will make it extremely difficult for smugglers to hide contraband in the hulls of ships. Looking something like a bowling ball, the aquatic robot is “printed out” on a 3D printer and can be made for around $600.

Sampriti Bhattacharyya, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who designed the robot with her advisor, spoke about the cost effectiveness of her robot to Auto World News.

“It’s very expensive for port security to use traditional robots for every small boat coming into the port. If this is cheap enough – if I can get this out for $600, say – why not just have 20 of them doing collaborative inspection? And if it breaks, it’s not a big deal. It’s very easy to make.”

According to Engadget, Bhattacharyya and her advisor, Harry Asada, recently presented the new aquatic robot at the 2014 IEEE/International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. The designers say they are focused right now on making a second prototype with wireless charging capabilities, longer battery life, and the ability to perform ultrascans on ships without having to touch their barnacle-encrusted hulls.

Though Bhattacharyya originally designed the aquatic robot to look for cracks in nuclear reactors’ water tanks, the application of inspecting ships for the false hulls that smugglers often use to hide contrabands became obvious. The oval-shaped submersible robot is a little smaller than a football, with a flattened panel on one side that it can slide along an underwater surface to perform ultrasound scans. Because of its small size and unique propulsion mechanism — which leaves no visible wake — the robots could be concealed in clumps of algae. Fleets of them could swarm over ships at port without alerting smugglers.

Half of the robot — the half with the flattened panel — is waterproof and houses the electronics. The other half is permeable and houses the propulsion system, which consists of six pumps that expel water through rubber tubes.

Bhattacharyya said in an MIT report that the elliptical — and rather unstable — shape of the robot was intentional.

“It’s very similar to fighter jets, which are made unstable so that you can maneuver them easily. If I turn on the two jets [at one end], it won’t go straight. It will just turn.”

Bhattacharyya and Asada are currently exploring mechanical systems that would create hydrodynamic buffers of just the right depth to enable the robot to perform ultrasound scans without surface contact.

Their research on the aquatic robot at MIT was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

[Image via MIT News]