NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An eel undulating through coastal waters, powered by batteries and checking for mines. A jellyfish is actually a surveillance robot, powered by the atoms around it. Fins pick up intelligence while propelling a robot bluegill sunfish.
The Office of Naval Research is supporting baby steps toward making those visions of the future a reality. For instance, the jellyfish work in Texas and Virginia is focused on how the creatures move in water, and how to mimic or even surpass their abilities. The robojellyfish is currently tethered to hydrogen and oxygen tanks, and ONR project manager Robert Brizzolara said he doesn’t plan to try making it move autonomously yet.
There’s plenty still to learn about basic hydrodynamics.
“We, as engineers, haven’t created anything that swims nearly as well as a very basic fish,” said Drexel University’s James Tangorra, who is working on a robotic bluegill. Partners at Harvard and the University of Georgia are studying the actual fish; he uses their findings to engineer imitations. “There are great things we can learn from fish ... The way they propel themselves; the way in which they sense water.”
Ultimately, the Navy wants “the next generation of robotics that would operate in that very Navy-unique underwater domain,” said Jim Fallin, a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, which is doing separate work in San Diego. One aspect is finding long-lived power sources to let drones loiter a long time to collect information, he said.
Possible uses include spying, mapping, and mine detection and removal.
The Navy is not the only agency paying for such research. In 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offered small business innovation research money for an underwater robot that could navigate rivers, inlets, harbors and coastal waters to check for general traffic, obstacles, things on and under the bottom, and “specific vessels of interest.”
The grants aren’t aimed as much at creating drones as at understanding how things move forward under water, Brizzolara said. One aim is outdoing nature, at least as far as swimming goes, he said.