Ocean tech: Robot sea snakes and shoal-swimming subs
In the near future, ocean search-and-repair specialists won’t need arms or legs, according to one vision.
In fact, they are destined to be much more slithery.
“We try to get people to move away from the word snake because it’s seen as kind of scary but even I find myself all the time calling it a snake,” says Richard Mills from marine tech firm Kongsberg.
If the idea of a swimming robot snake doesn’t appeal, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.
I first mentioned Eelume to a friend who asked me whether I would be allowed to have a swim with it.
I was secretly relieved that the answer was no.
What started as a university robotics research project in Norway 10 years ago, has become a commercial prototype – and it is unavoidably snake-like.
It’s designed to inspect structures on the sea bed and carry out repairs, and is currently being tested on oil rigs.
The flexible, self-propelling, tubular device has a camera at each end and is kitted out with sensors.
Because it has a modular design, its parts can be switched to suit different tasks, with swappable tools including a grabber and cleaning brush.
The design allows the robot to work in confined spaces that might be inaccessible to other vehicles, as well as to wriggle its body to stay in place in strong currents.
And because it is designed to connect itself to a seabed dock when not in use, it can be deployed at any time whatever the surface conditions.
It isn’t yet on the market, but was recently on show at the Southampton’s Ocean Business trade fair.
Future plans already include a cheap 3D-printed model and another which can operate in very deep water.
“Something like going inside the Titanic, where divers can’t, is a great opportunity that we could look at in the future,” said Mr Mills.
“We are only limited by imagination in where we can take this vehicle.”
Just as driverless cars are causing excitement on land, autonomous boats are also making a splash.
“Unmanned systems allow you to focus on the data,” said Dan Hook from UK firm ASV Global, which was also at the Southampton expo.
“You stay on board your ship in a warm, dry location, you can focus on the data and where to send the unmanned system next.”
The firm’s two autonomous vessels – which can also be operated via remote control – currently run on diesel generators rather than battery power.
“We’re seeing increasing regulation on the types of engines we can use – it’s a good thing to force you into the cleaner engines,” he said.
“They are quieter and more efficient… but the future is electric, we’re seeing it in cars, it’s happening in our industry as well.”
Batteries from the specialist battery-maker Steatite’s have to function at low temperatures and high pressure, and power deep-sea devices for days at a time.