Underwater robots, also known as underwater drones or subsea robots, are specialized machines designed to perform various tasks in aquatic environments. With the ability to dive deeper and stay underwater longer than humans, they serve as our eyes and ears in places we can’t reach, providing valuable data about marine life, water conditions, and geological features.
Importance and Uses of Underwater Robots
These subaquatic explorers have diverse uses, from scientific research and environmental monitoring to commercial applications like oil and gas exploration and underwater construction.
They help us map the ocean floor, inspect underwater structures, search for sunken ships, and even explore other planets’ oceans. In essence, they enable us to access and learn about areas that were previously inaccessible or too dangerous for humans.
In September 2021, underwater robots, also known as underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), accounted for around 70% of the overall robotic systems deployed in underwater applications.
Types of Underwater Robots
1. Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)
AUVs operate independently without a physical connection to their operators, navigating pre-set routes using onboard sensors and computers. They’re used for a wide range of tasks, including mapping the seafloor, studying marine life, and collecting water samples. Examples include the AUV Sentry and the Remus series unmanned underwater vehicles.
2. Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)
Unlike AUVs, ROVs are controlled remotely by operators on the surface via a tether cable. This allows for real-time control and data collection, making them ideal for precise tasks like underwater repair, archaeological digs, or underwater inspections, of pipelines and oil rigs. The ROV Jason is a well-known example.
3. Hybrid ROV/AUV systems
Hybrid systems, such as the HROV Nereus, combine the advantages of AUVs and ROVs. They can operate autonomously for broad area surveys and then be remotely operated for close-up inspections or manipulations.
Underwater robots can operate at various depths depending on their design and intended use. Some AUVs have been known to reach depths exceeding 6,000 meters in the ocean’s deepest regions, such as the Mariana Trench.
How Underwater Robots are Used
1. Exploration and Mapping
Underwater robots play a crucial role in exploring the vast, largely uncharted underwater world. With their ability to endure extreme pressures and temperatures, they can reach depths and locations in deep ocean that are inaccessible to humans. For example, the HOV Alvin, a deep-diving submersible, has been instrumental in making major scientific discoveries and advancing our knowledge of the deep sea.
Underwater robots have substantially increased exploration efficiency compared to traditional manned missions, with some AUVs covering hundreds of square kilometers in a single mission.
2. Monitoring and Sampling
Underwater robots can collect data on water temperature, salinity, ocean currents,, and marine life, helping us understand changes in the ocean environment. For instance, the Scarlet Knight glider traveled from New Jersey to Spain, collecting valuable data on ocean circulation and heat content along the way.
3. Construction and Repair
Subsea robots are also used for constructing and repairing underwater infrastructure, such as pipelines and oil platforms. Their ability to perform precise tasks in challenging conditions makes them invaluable tools in these operations.
4. Surveillance and Security
Underwater robots are increasingly being used for surveillance purposes, monitoring ports, underwater cables, and maritime borders. With their ability to operate discreetly and remain submerged for long periods, they offer significant advantages over traditional surveillance methods.
Operating an Underwater Robot
1. Setting up the robot
Setting up an underwater robot involves calibrating its sensors, testing its propulsion system, and programming its mission parameters. This process ensures that the robot is ready to carry out its tasks effectively and safely.
2. Controlling the robot
Controlling an underwater robot can involve direct remote control remotely operated vehicle, as in the case of ROVs, or setting up pre-programmed mission parameters for AUVs. Advanced systems may use artificial intelligence algorithms to adapt to changing conditions and make autonomous decisions during the mission.
3. Navigation and positioning
Underwater robots use a variety of methods to navigate and determine their position, including acoustic signaling, inertial navigation, and GPS when close to the surface. These techniques allow the robot to follow its planned route and accurately pinpoint its location.
4. Data collection and retrieval
Underwater robots collect data using a variety of sensors and instruments, including cameras, sonar, and water sampling devices. This data can be transmitted to the surface in real-time, or it can be stored on-board for retrieval after the mission.
Underwater robots have diverse applications, including ocean exploration, marine research, underwater archaeology, offshore oil and gas inspection, environmental monitoring, pipeline maintenance, search and rescue operations, and more.
Maintenance of Underwater Robots
1. Regular inspection
Just as human divers and like any machine, underwater robots require regular inspections to ensure they continue to operate effectively. These inspections typically involve checking the robot’s systems for any signs of wear or damage, testing its instruments and sensors, and verifying its communication capabilities.
2. Cleaning and lubrication
Regular cleaning and lubrication are important to keep an underwater robot functioning properly. Over time, saltwater can cause corrosion and buildup on the robot’s parts, which can affect its performance. Therefore, after each mission, it’s important to thoroughly clean the robot and lubricate any moving parts to prevent damage and prolong its lifespan.
3. Part replacement and repair
Despite careful maintenance, parts of the underwater inspection robot may need to be replaced or repaired over time. This might involve replacing worn-out seals or bearings, repairing damaged components, or upgrading outdated software or hardware.
Future of Underwater Robots
The future of underwater robotics looks promising. With advances in technology, we can expect to see robots that are more autonomous, intelligent, and capable of performing more complex tasks.
They will play an increasingly important role in scientific research, environmental monitoring, resource extraction, and underwater exploration. As we continue to unlock the mysteries of the ocean, underwater robots will be our trusted companions in this exciting journey.
The use of underwater robots has significantly contributed to marine conservation efforts by enabling researchers to study and monitor marine ecosystems, track endangered species, and assess the impact of climate change on ocean environments.
Underwater robotics has revolutionized our ability to explore and understand the vast depths of the ocean. These remarkable machines allow us to collect data, study marine life, monitor environmental conditions, and carry out complex underwater tasks that were previously unimaginable. With their help, we can uncover the secrets of the underwater world and make important discoveries that will shape our understanding of the planet and its future.
So next time you think about the ocean, remember that most of it is still unexplored. But thanks to underwater robotics, scientists can finally access the sea floor true final frontier.
In recent years, there has been significant progress in underwater robotics, with an average annual growth rate of 8-10% in developing and deploying underwater robot systems.
In conclusion, sonar-equipped underwater robots developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution transform how offshore wind farms are inspected and maintained.
With their advanced sonar systems, underwater charging capabilities, and robotic arms, these robots offer a cost-effective, efficient, and safe alternative to traditional methods. Using these robots improves the overall efficiency of offshore wind farms and opens up new possibilities for underwater operations in various industries.