The firm behind the popular Roomba vacuum cleaning robots has also been quietly marketing underwater robots. Massachusetts-based iRobot is betting that their product, the 1KA Seaglider, will be of interest to military, institutional and scientific users. So far they've been put to use in projects that include exploration of Antarctic waters and assisting in the Gulf of Mexico cleanup. The Seaglider lasts for months underwater and can collect mobile data in dangerous environments without putting humans at risk.
Scientists at the University of Washington developed the robot, while iRobot sells them commercially. The Asimov-ian tech firm also signed an agreement last October to develop and expand a fleet of Seaglider robots for the U.S. Navy's Naval Oceanographic Office.
The 1KA Seaglider has no moving external parts and does not use propellers or a motor to move through the water. Instead, the robot propels itself through the water through a buoyant swim bladder and a weight redistribution system that allows it to ascend and descend.
Scientists and military users of the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) are unable to directly pilot it in the traditional sense; instead they rely on the robot's GPS to determine location and later retrieve the Seaglider via locating the signal and having it surface within sight of a boat. The Seaglider's top speed is 1.5 MPH.
For scientists, the benefit of using the Seaglider is simple: It can go where people can't; it can move; and it's significantly cheaper than other underwater robots and UUVs which rely on propeller-based propulsion. The robot can work in rough seas and in extreme weather/temperature situations where a traditional crewed ship cannot. Gliders can be purchased for as little as $150,000, which is significantly inexpensive compared to much ship-based ocean research. Most importantly, they can also be constantly reprogrammed remotely via satellite phone.
Additionally, the Seaglider is mobile and can collect data from a wide geographic areas. According to Dr. Walker Smith of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who conducted successful tests of the Seaglider for analyzing the waters of Antarctica's Ross Sea, “using gliders allows us to collect data continually, in a manner much different from ships, with much more insight.”
Smith's tests proved that the robots could successfully navigate icy waters for an extended period of time. The robot was launched through a hole in the ice and began to collect data on temperature, salinity, levels of dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll concentrations through a special low-power sensor; at regular intervals, Smith said, the glider used its bladder to surface and transmitted data via satellite phone to a team in Seattle.
By the time the two gliders involved in the project were collected several weeks ago after approximately three months at sea, they had successfully collected data from more than 2000 feet underwater and traveled more than 900 miles each. One of the robots had even accidentally drifted under the massive Ross Ice Shelf—approximately the size of France—for more than two days. The Seaglider successfully collected sea data from under the ice shelf and transmitted them upon reentering open water.
Another Seaglider robot, operated by its creators at the University of Washington, successfully operated at sea for more than 9 months through 3000 miles without recharging, setting a new endurance record for underwater robots.
Seaglider robots were also deployed in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to monitor subsurface oil by both the Navy and scientists at institutions including the University of Southern Mississippi. The robots tracked salinity, dissolved oxygen, flourescence, dissolved organic matter and a host of other factors. The robots' bladders allowed them to track the dispersal of hydrocarbons through ocean currents, something conventional ships and monitoring devices had trouble achieving.
Advances in satellite technology and robotics mean that unmanned underwater vehicles, including Seaglider robots, will be used for military and scientific purposes even more in the coming years. If a robot can explore under an Antarctic ice shelf the size of France, it can do many other things too.
[Image of staff handling ice edge work for Seaglider and image of Seaglider launch courtesy of Dr. Vernon Asper]
For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.