Navy Deploys Robot Sharks. Yes, Really

Automatonophobia is the technical term for fear of robots. Fear of sharks is selachophobia. Psychiatrists will have to come up with a new term now that the U.S. Navy has deployed, yes, robot sharks.

The Navy’s GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) — a five-foot-long, 100-pound robotic shark — has completed testing and will now join the fleet, according to naval researchers.

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The GhostSwimmer is based on biomimetic design principles, in which engineers leverage millions of years of biological evolution to create machines and systems that emulate animals or natural processes.

“It swims just like a fish does by oscillating its tail fin back and forth,” said Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering’s Advanced Systems Group, on the GhostSwimmer project page. “The unit is a combination of unmanned systems engineering and unique propulsion and control capabilities.”

The Navy plans to use the GhostSwimmer for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions as well as hull inspections of friendly ships. The robot can operate autonomously for extended periods of time on battery power, or it can be controlled with a 500-foot tether.

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The Navy isn’t disclosing exactly how the GhostSwimmer transmits and receives data, but the press materials state that the robot has to periodically surface to download information it collects.

And here’s some good news for the marine mammal community: Designers are also hoping that the GhostSwimmer could be used to sniff out underwater mines, replacing the bottlenose dolphins and sea lions the Navy currently trains for the task.

Drones Practice Monitoring Volcanoes for Eruptions

A drone that deploys a ground robot could regularly explore remote, dangerous areas.

When Mount Ontake erupted in Japan a few weeks ago, it was completely unexpected. No significant earthquakes, no steam or gas releases, nothing.

Usually, some warning does exist, and the best that we can to is to monitor active volcanoes as carefully as we can to try and spot whatever warning signs that are there.

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This is especially problematic with volcanoes that are undergoing frequent periods of activity, where it’s not safe to get close to them to determine when a minor eruption might turn into a major one. Not safe, you say? There’s a solution for that: send in the robots.

Keiji Nagatani, a professor at Tohoku University in Japan, has spent the last half decade developing robotic systems for volcano exploration.

For the last few years, he’s been working on ways of exploring remote, potentially dangerous volcanic areas using UAVs in collaboration with ground robots. A video below shows a test last month on Japan’s Mount Asama.

Clover robots could be equipped with small sensor packages, like a gas sensor, but it’s also important to be able to analyze rock samples directly.

Strawberry is a robotic claw that hangs from the bottom of Zion and can be used to collect rocks or soil or stuffed alien toys or whatever else a claw dangling from the sky is good for picking up.

If you watch closely, in addition to a claw device, there’s also an actuated roller that helps to scoop up smaller rocks and dust.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, none of these robots have yet been tested on an active volcano, but hopefully the Japanese researchers are getting close to doing that.

Because one thing we’ve learned from previous disasters is that robots can be a huge help, so the more we test and improve them under real-world conditions, the better they’ll be when we really need them.

Robot Rides Hoverbike, Nuff Said

we know that life is increasingly busy in the digital age, and there are a million things you could be doing at any given moment. However, may we modestly propose you take a moment to watch this frickin’ robot ride a hoverbike.

Developed by a small operation out of the U.K. called Malloy Aeronautics, the Drone 3 hoverbike is exactly that — a flying motorcycle powered by four turbine fans. But the current vehicle is a 1/3 size scale model — a drone, essentially — with a robot rider to approximate the proportional size and weight of a human rider. The drone is controlled via remote, similar to other UAV designs.

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The Drone 3 is a proof-of-concept demonstration of a more ambitious plan. In an interesting strategy, the 1/3-size drone is being sold via Kickstarter in hopes of funding development of a full-size quadcopter hoverbike, designed for human riders. Think Return of the Jedi, forest moon of Endor, this sort of thing.

Designers say the quadcopter approach, which uses four different overlapping fans, offers improved stability, maneuverability and payload capacity than competing two-fan hoverbike designs. In fact, the Malloy hoverbike is intended to share the skies with helicopters, planes and other aircraft.

“This hoverbike is a helicopter — it takes off like a helicopter, flies and lands like a helicopter,” says Malloy Aeronautics’ Grant Stapleton in the demonstration video. “It’s designed to fly to an altitude of over 9,000 feet and do so at over 100 knots [115 mph].”

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The company is currently finishing up the full-size prototype, with flight tests expected in a few months.

Meanwhile, you can still get on board at the Kickstarter campaign, running through Aug. 31. For a pledge of just under $1,000 USD, you can get a bare-bones Drone 3 kit. For larger pledges, the team will throw in the robotic pilot (named Buster, in case you’re curious), plus a mounted Go Pro camera and dedicated control unit.

A Supersonic, Stealth Sub Could Sneak Up from China

According to a report this week in the South China Morning Post — an independent English-language newspaper published out of Hong Kong — the Chinese military is working on an even more ambitious kind of submarine.

Researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology told the Post that they’re currently working on a submarine that would travel inside a virtually frictionless air bubble, enabling the sub to travel at supersonic speeds underwater.

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In fact, according to the report, the sub could travel from Shanghai to San Francisco in less than two hours. Analysts are skeptical of those numbers, according to a follow-up report in the Washington Post, but the science behind the concept is valid.

In fact, research into the basic technology has been happening since the height of the Cold War. The submarine design employs a process called “supercativation,” in which gases expelled from the nose of the vessel create an air bubble that surrounds the entire vehicle. Certain types of torpedoes already use the technology.

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The main problem with the system, as it exists today, is that there’s no reliable way to steer a vessel when it’s in supercativation state. The Harbin Institute researchers claim to have solved this problem by way of a liquid membrane that would coat the vessel when traveling at high speeds. The membrane could be adjusted on the fly, as it were, to create different levels of friction on particular parts of the vessel.

The researchers also said that the technology isn’t limited to submarines. “If a swimsuit can create and hold many tiny bubbles in water, it can significantly reduce the water drag,” researcher Li Fengchen told the Post. “Swimming in water could be as effortless as flying in the sky.”

Underwater Drone to Hunt Down Enemy Subs

The three-hulled ship will use sensors to track quiet, diesel-electric submarines.

The military’s ambitious plan to build an anti-submarine drone is taking shape.

Defense contractor Leidos has begun construction on the ACTUV (Autonomous Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel), which is designed to track enemy submarines across vast oceans for months at a time.

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Commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, ACTUV will perform a host of missions, from reconnaissance to surveillance. The trimaran, or three-hulled ship, will use sensors to track quiet diesel electric submarines. It will also be equipped with long and short range radar.

Situational sensors will ensure that the ACTUV avoids other shipping, according to Leidos, which says that the vessel will require minimum human input.

DARPA is keen to build an unmanned vessel for submarine hunting, removing the need for crew quarters and many other features of a traditional ship. A human is not intended to step aboard the ACTUV at any point during its operating cycle.

“It would help keep our troops out of harm’s way and provide capability in more harsh environmental conditions for a longer period of time,” said Leidos Group President John Fratamico, in a statement.

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DARPA even used crowdsourcing in the early stages of the project, offering ‘Dangerous Waters,’ an ACTUV Tactics Simulator, to gamers via for free download. The agency then reviewed gamers’ strategies in an attempt to improve the drone’s tactical capabilities.

Construction will last 15 months. The vessel is expected to set sail for testing on the Columbia River in 2015.

Drone Finds Missing Elderly Man in 20 Minutes

A Wisconsin man who suffers from dementia and had been missing three days was found in 20 minutes with the help of a drone.

It all started when, on July 16, 82-year-old Guillermo “Gill” DeVenecia went missing near Fitchburg, Wisc. The police issued a notice asking local residents to aid in the search and be on the lookout for a man, 5’9″ tall, 148 lbs with gray hair, wearing tan pants, a blue or brown shirt and leather sandals.

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After three days, DeVenecia had still not been located, even after the authorities used a helicopter, search dogs and hundreds of volunteers to look for the man.

When Colorado resident David Lesh, who was in town visiting his girlfriend’s parents, heard the news, he decided to enlist his drone. Normally, Lesh uses the drone and its remote-control camera to film aerial ski and snowboard videos. This time, he took the drone to a large bean field and began crisscrossing the space from 200 feet in the air.

In about 20 minutes, he had nearly finished scanning the field and need to make one last check in the field’s corner. As the drone approached, Lesh noticed a man stumbling about, looking a disoriented.

Sure enough, it was DeVenecia. Lesh, his girlfriend Katie Gorman and her father, Gary Gorman, tore through the bean field toward DeVenecia, and were able to help him to their car.

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The 82-year-old was found in good spirits and wasn’t sure why everyone had been looking for him. He didn’t realize he’d been gone three days. Even though he was dehydrated and tired, he cracked jokes and seemed fine.

“To be honest, when David was flying the drone over the bean fields, we thought we were looking for a body,” said Gary, who was surprised at DeVenecia’s condition.

Luckily, this story has a happy ending.