Ocean-mapping robots could help uncover mysteries of the Deep Blue
Thu 5 Nov 2015
A swarm of pumpkin-shaped robots is being developed to map oceans, gathering maritime data for use in tourism, reef monitoring and anti-terrorism among other applications.
The Eve robot – or Ellipsodial Vehicle for Exploration – was created by Sampriti Bhattacharyya, a robotics engineer at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). The scientist envisions her yellow robots travelling below the water’s surface, using their sensors to detect and monitor underwater happenings – both individually and collaboratively.
Bhattacharyya, who is promoting the intelligent underwater drone through her own company, Hydroswarm, suggests that the design can be described as a ‘Google Maps of the ocean.’ Her idea has already won several awards, including a gold prize from startup accelerator MassChallenge.
Despite covering over 70% of the earth’s surface, the ocean remains a surprisingly unknown and undiscovered mass, with oceanographers stating that only 5% has been explored. Bhattacharyya added that 95% of the world’s potential energy and resources are stored in the ocean – ‘We don’t have to go to asteroids to mine helium or find fuel – there’s plenty in our backyard […] plenty of energy resources in our oceans.’
Eve acts entirely autonomously, without wheels or tethers, which makes the robot cheaper and easier to control than other submersible devices. ‘Eve can move on ships’ hulls to check for contraband or terrorism threats. Currently the US Navy use dolphins for such activities – but that’s not scalable,’ said Bhattacharyya.
One challenge, Massachusetts-based oceanographer Yogesh Girdhar noted, is achieving effective underwater communication between the robots. He explained that if two robots are talking to each other, they pollute the entire sound channel, meaning that everyone else on the network has to remain quiet. Girdhar also pointed out that, although ‘theoretically solvable’, Eve’s two-hour battery life would present a further issue for the project.
Potential applications for the Eve robot seem endless, but the technology is currently attracting interest from fields including coral reef and wildlife monitoring, oil spill tracking and defence. Search and rescue could also be a practical area for the drones, helping for example in tragedies such as the missing MH370 airliner – inspiration for Bhattacharyya’s work: ‘With the loss of the Malaysia Airlines plane, I realised that it was time for my robot to get out of the lab into the real world,’ she said.