Underwater drones straight out of sci-fi

Aquatic robots can conquer the oceans

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Aerial drones have generated a lot of buzz lately, whether it’s for package delivery, hurricane hunting, 3-D mapping, or military espionage. But the sky’s not the limit for drones — why not use them deep beneath the surface of the ocean? Their ability to move along the sea floor allows drones to explore the watery depths in ways and places that are impossible for human divers.

Call it blue tech, ocean IT, or the underwater Internet of Things, this final frontier is being explored for commercial and military applications using unmanned underwater vehicles. Among the companies taking the plunge is Aquabotix, a Fall River firm that says it’s the world’s first publicly-traded underwater drone company, focused on the use of drones for defense, marine inspection, port security, oil production, aquaculture, undersea mining, and consumer recreation.

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One of Aquabotix’s key products is a remotely-operated submarine, the Endura, which lets users conduct deep sea inspections from the safety of topside. This and other underwater robots are being developed by a team of engineers who work in an old textile mill, innovating again in a location that once tested a new type of loom in the 1890s.

The Aquabotix lab is unique because it’s a machine shop with swimming pools in it. Software engineer Micah Boswell works there on remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), “not to be confused with UAV, unmanned aerial vehicles,” says Boswell. His interest in underwater drones began when he built a robo-submarine as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech and tested it in the swimming pool of a friend. The experience taught him electronics, hardware, software, and logistics – and ultimately brought him to Aquabotix, where he’s working on underwater drones similar to his undergraduate project.

On a typical day, Boswell figures out software architecture and electronics systems, submerging underwater drones into one of Aquabotix’s 10-foot-long pools to conduct stress tests or depth calibrations.

The Globe spoke with him about the boom in robotics under the waves.

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“Engineers can find themselves excited about things that seem very mundane to everyone else, but these unmanned vehicles warrant our interest — they are basically straight out of a Tom Clancy novel. The depths of the oceans, like outer space, are an environment where humans do not normally thrive. It will always be easier to send a purpose-built machine out to perform a task because of that. And the oceans are huge. If you look at Google maps for the sea floor, we have some data, but it’s low resolution. We haven’t had the initiative or capacity to study the ocean until recently.

“Our machines will allow us to go down into the ocean depths, which remain largely unexplored. The challenge they face is withstanding a harsh environment, and the autonomy aspect goes one step further: they also have to navigate on their own. Flying an aerial drone is easy – it doesn’t have to be waterproof and uses radio communication and GPS. But water is very good at blocking radio waves, especially sea water, because of its slight conductivity. You can see for miles in the air, but even with high-powered lights underwater, sometimes visibility is as low as 10 to 15 feet or less.

“A lot of AUVs will rise to the surface and have to continuously move to stay submerged. They need to compensate for underwater current, and if there’s a wellhead or fish farm, the vehicle needs to sit motionless.

“Our vehicle testing is done in our company pools or outside in lakes, pools and rivers. Among other things, we make sure thrusters are working and also test buoyancy to make sure the vehicle doesn’t sink or rise too fast.

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“The Endura, our main product, is relatively small, like an eight-inch sphere about 40 inches long. It has a camera system and is operated with a touch screen on a tablet, so it’s a game-like control method. One of these underwater robots helped researchers locate a vital instrument in the Cape Cod Canal to make sure it was not upside down, improperly recording current and tidal flow data. We’ve also helped a major aquarium document more than a dozen species of animals occupying artificial habitat structures, searched for ship wrecks, done hydro power dam inspections, shoveled dead fish, and helped a crew locate a missing diver trapped in a net.

“Law enforcement [officials] use underwater drones to locate abandoned guns in rivers. And one of my favorite uses: underwater drones search for aerial drones that have crashed into the ocean.

“Whenever one of our vehicles is dried off and packed away, it means we just gleaned some information we didn’t have before. There are unlimited surprises below the surface of the ocean. To be honest, I didn’t start out with an interest in the water, because I grew up in southwest Virginia, but my line of work has brought me a greater appreciation for it.”