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November 1, 2011 > The Robot Report

The Robot Report

Tracking The Business Of Robots

By Frank Tobe's The Robot Report

We've read about their use in last year's Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill and their underwater repair work, traipsing the corridors and collecting rubble at Fukushima nuclear power plants, the exploits of James Cameron and his amazing underwater photos and movie about the Titanic, read the science journals about new autonomous drilling rigs and underwater platforms, and seen the recent finding and salvaging of the black box from the 2009 Air France crash. Just last week the largest ever cache of precious metal found in the sea - 200 tons of silver worth $230 million - was discovered along with the wreck of a British cargo ship sunk during the Second World War by a German U-boat.

Almost every day I find a press release reporting marine contracts of one type or another. For example Shilling Robotics just received an order for two 3,000m ROV systems for delivery to the South Korean navy. They will be used for submarine rescue and towing/salvage operations.

There's no doubt that the underwater robot business is emerging.

Underwater robots are very new and many of them are still in their initial phase of evolution. Most of them are actually inspired by the design engineering of nature. These robots look like sea creatures and have achieved a certain degree of motion but are still not good enough to gel with underwater sea life. Although the application and target problems are limitless, most of them are presently focused on specific areas like oil, gas, and mineral exploration, data collection and monitoring underwater changes, search and rescue, and military and defense scenarios.

Nevertheless, oceans cover two-thirds of the planet and largely remain unexplored. Has the time for a real underwater industry finally arrived? Where are the biggest opportunities? What are the major technical and business challenges? And which companies have already started impacting this new industry?

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) extend our ability to explore the deep sea much in the same way that space rovers have enhanced our understanding of remote planets. UUVs are now becoming cost-effective tools in applications ranging from deep-water survey for the offshore oil and gas industry to military operations to tracking sea life. The need for increased ocean observation for commercial as well as scientific purposes offers great potential for UUVs to enhance the performance of conventional ship-based operations, as well as the ability to operate in difficult-to-access areas such as below the Arctic ice.

Here are three American companies (from the online Service Robots for Government and Corporate Use directory of The Robot Report) which exemplify this emerging industry. Each has a different technological orientation, market presence and sales plan - but all are emerging companies in the marine robotics business.

iRobot, pioneer of the cleaning robotic systems business and provider of the military's PackBot bomb disposal and other dangerous missions robots, has entered into marine robotics with a bang. iRobot has a balanced commercial, defense, research portfolio and is diversifying with cross-over products in the marine and healthcare sectors.

In a recent talk with David Heinz, iRobot's VP of Maritime Systems, interesting aspects of their Enhanced Seaglider unmanned underwater vehicle and their whole family of underwater products came to light. He is convinced that underwater is where iRobot is going to be spending a lot more time.

The Seaglider robot is a data collector. It measures temperature, salinity and other quantities in the ocean and is integrated with a global satellite system for automatic measurement and transmission of data. It is battery powered, capable of 3 to 4 dives and underwater glides per day and lasts for around 10 months on a single charge depending on the mission. More than 135 Seagliders have been delivered to various government agencies, US defense and research organizations. With high endurance, the Seaglider is a multi-mission robot which has survived and come back with shark bites and dents, working at a fraction of the cost of ship-based methods and at lesser risk. The price is in the $125,000 to $150,000 range depending on sensors and could go higher with more expensive payloads.

Lots of underwater applications are addressed by iRobot's line of maritime robots. Two of the most important are likely to be harbor defense and tracking of illegal underwater activities. Other applications provide data support in aquatic monitoring, supplementing (with the prospect of replacement) sonobuoy systems used by the navy, hurricane monitoring for oil platforms, mine warfare, harbor defense (eg: operating a picket line with triangulation software to alert drug agencies when drug trafficking is suspected, etc.) It can also be used to detect underwater nuclear radiation and temperature monitoring and some development has already started in this direction. There are a few challenges; one of them is an inability to operate in shallow waters because the devices get sucked with currents.

Another interesting robot is the wave glider from Liquid Robotics, a company focused on serving the scientific and oceanographic research communities. A submerged glider connected with a surface float by a 7 meter long tether, it is based on a look-down concept and scans data from the surface and within 20 meters of the underwater glider. Wave gliders harvest wave energy for its thrust and that gives it an added advantage of not being limited by any on-board power source although the above-water float is solar powered and uses that power for satellite communication.

The Wave Glider supports a wide variety of sensor payloads and can keep station or travel from point to point. Data and instructions are transmitted to and from shore via satellite. Applications include climate science, tsunami warning, protected area monitoring, marine mammal observation, port and harbor security, transportation safety, maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and commercial apps like fishery management, aquaculture, pollution detection and natural resource discovery. Military/government apps include naval oceanography, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, monitoring and managing economic zones, etc.

Teledyne Technologies is an aerospace/defense conglomerate and provides electronic and engineered subsystems for defense, space, environmental and nuclear applications. Robotics represent just a small portion of their overall revenue, however, three wholly-owned subsidiaries provide notable maritime products.

Teledyne Benthos provides a line of modular UUVs and ROVs including the Stingray and MiniROVER. These ROVs are used for mine warfare, in-situ biological sampling, port and harbor security and ship hull inspection. They are also used for under-ice surveying, interior and exterior pipe inspection, salvage operations and offshore structure surveys. Their clientele include military, oil and gas companies, oceanographic institutes and marine and biological science research organizations.

Teledyne Brown Engineering recently received a $53.1 million contract with the Navy to manufacture 100 Slocum LBS-G (Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider) gliders to acquire critical oceanographic data to improve fleet positioning during naval maneuvering. The LBS-G glider is a torpedo-shaped unmanned underwater vehicle about 2 meters long and uses changes in buoyancy along with its wings and tail-fin steering to glide through the water.

Teledyne Webb Research has a novel way of describing their Slocum line of gliders: "A unique mobile network component capable of moving to specific locations and depths and occupying controlled spatial and temporal grids." Mobile network being the key descriptors. These battery and thermal energy powered gliders are used for subsurface sampling, carrying a wide range of sensors, patrolling for weeks and months at a time, interacting with multiple vehicles with minimal personnel and infrastructure to study and map the dynamic subsurface waters "around the clock and calendar."

Perhaps the biggest opportunities for marine robotics, at present, are still with governments for their defense, security and oceanographic surveillance - and with big companies for their exploration of oil, rare earth materials, and maintenance and construction of underwater platforms. As marine applications expand to areas such as aquaculture and other commercial marketplaces, these robots will be constantly updating our current perception and understanding of sea life and the world beneath the water with lots of new findings.

The current apps - all of which are performed autonomously for long periods of time at a fraction of the cost of present methods - are the just the tip of the iceberg in this emerging marine sector of the service robotics industry.

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