The underwater battle for robot supremacy is heating up.
This week alone, while 32 teams are duking it out for an underwater robotic supremacy title on the West coast, across the pond two European research teams announced breakthroughs in propulsion and sensing tech on the path to deep-sea domination.
Counter-terrorism missions, underwater de-mining, and search and rescue operations are just a few potential uses military. But beyond defense and security, underwater robots are increasingly used in civilian life, monitoring environmental damage and investigating deep sea animal and plant life, for example.
Battle beneath the waves
Young engineers from the U.S. and around the world are competing to build underwater robotic vehicles that can operate on their own -- no human pilot required.
Their robotic offspring are vying for supremacy at sea at the annual International RoboSub Competition, co-sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International Foundation.
Naval Research program officers actively participate in the competition as mentors and judges in an event that makes preparation for math, science, electronics, computer and engineering courses at college fun.
The RoboSub competition is an extension of the ONR-funded program SeaPerch, in which students build an underwater remotely operated vehicle while learning about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
After the SeaPerch robot is constructed, students are encouraged to test their vehicles, deploy them on missions, and compete in a one-day, district-wide design competition called the SeaPerch Challenge.
Through the SeaPerch initiative, students learn a range of skills and knowledge from ship and submarine design, buoyancy and displacement through to propulsion and biological sampling.
The autonomous underwater vehicles will then race through the depths of a Navy pool and tackle a number of missions at a Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Systems Center in San Diego.
This year's mission? "License to Dive."
High school and college age competitors' robotic submarines are tackling six familiar-sounding challenges, from parking to speed traps.
Demonstrating agility and control, the submarines will need to bump two buoys in response to colors emitted every few seconds. The vehicles will also need to show mastery of a speed trap and fire foam torpedoes through holes in a hexagonal wheel.
Finally, the submarines will also need to deliver a pizza: They must bring two mock pizza boxes (made from PVC pipe) to a specified location.
Spectators will be watching every sub on 40-foot projection screens in a special viewing area, while others can watch the competition which will be live-streamed to the RoboSub website. The semi-final is on Saturday and Finals are on Sunday.
Robot fish across the pond
Also this week, the FILOSE project reeled in a breakthrough in its investigation into how fish sense their underwater environment.
Biomimetic research -- essentially mimicking nature's designs rather than reinventing the wheel -- like this holds great promise for innovation.
When fish swim in their environment, they can sense water flow and respond to flow patterns shifts. The FILOSE prototype looks and acts like a rainbow trout. It swims like the real fish by maintaining a rigid front and undulating its rear.
The team has also developed an artificial fish hair cell that mimics the physiology of a natural hair cell's sensors.
Using a flow tank for experiments, the fish robot seeks out areas where disruptive currents are weakest to obtain the least resistant as it swims.
The team calls it the first-ever flow-sensing underwater robot.
An octopus mash-up|
In yet another advance this week, the octopus inspired a new propulsion system.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA realized that octopuses are crafty creatures adept at protecting themselves from predators.
Ordinarily they move with their eight arms; when they need to escape quickly they take water into their mantle and squirt it back through a funnel shape at a high pressure.
To steer with precision, the octopus changes the funnel position.
Fraunhofer's man-made copy uses elastomer balls with mechanical inner workings to pump water. The researchers say their approach can withstand extreme levels of pressure without breaking and always returns to its original shape.
The team uses a robot to operate a 3D printer to manufacture their system and says
the production process can be accelerated by using several robots simultaneously.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie