this utility underwater robot folds out like a Transformer

Research applied to aerospace often ends up helping humans on Earth, and the Aquanaut is a good example.

When you think of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), you immediately think of space — and that’s only to be expected, since the term is an integral part of its name. As part of its activity, this government agency has acquired considerable experience in the development of robots adapted to the most hostile environments. And this expertise served him to accompany the firm Nauticus Robotics in the design of a new kind of metamorphic submersible robot.

This company was founded by Nic Radford, a highly talented engineer who worked for 14 years at NASA’s legendary Johnson Space Center in Houston. His favorite subject has always been robotics; he was notably part of the team that designed the Robonaut 2, the very first android astronaut to venture into space.

As the name of his firm suggests, the person concerned has changed paths; instead of focusing on the emptiness of space, he has took the opposite direction by turning towards the oceans. But that does not mean that he had to start from scratch, quite the contrary; the constraints are even surprisingly similar in these two very different environments.

The founder of Nauticus Robotics cut his teeth at NASA with the Robonaut 2, the first android astronaut to venture into space. ©NASA

From space to the ocean, recurring constraints

The first challenge is posed by the environmental conditions; whether it’s high-pressure water or the vacuum of space exposed to solar winds, in both cases engineers must expend considerable effort to ensure a robot’s survival in these extreme conditions.

The other major constraint is the distance. Whether the robot is in orbit or near the ocean floor, the operator is often positioned very far from the vehicle. In space, this forces ground teams to fall back on a relatively slow communication system, which poses a problem when it comes to controlling the machine in real time and with good precision.

This constraint is also valid for a robot immersed at a great depth. Fortunately, there is a parade; engineers can equip these machines with a huge cable. This approach makes it possible to feed the machine, to control it with great precision and to repatriate the data collected in the blink of an eye. But it is far from ideal.

This involves deploying huge logistical resources; according to NASA, operating such a machine costs approximately $100,000 a day. Moreover, an operation of this magnitude tends to be absolutely disastrous ecologically. Because of all the additional infrastructure that is required, the carbon footprint of these shipments reaches 70 tonnes of greenhouse gases per day according to Radford!

The Aquanaut, a true underwater Transformer

To circumvent these limits, his teams therefore sought to develop a new type of robot in collaboration with NASA. The result is the Aquanaut, a 100% electric submersible about 6 meters long and about 3.5 tons. It is able to operate in almost total autonomyand in the event of a problem, operators can control it in real time thanks to a proprietary communication system that works without this very disabling umbilical cord.

And this is not its only peculiarity. The most interesting point is that it unfolds like a real Transformer. At the beginning of its mission, it looks like a classic submarine, except for its bright orange coloring and its size (it is significantly smaller and plump than its military cousins).

Once in the target area, the nose pivots forward to release a bunch of cameras and sensors (sonar, LiDAR, depth sensors…). The side structures then fold down to transform into articulated arms. They are each surmounted by an anchor point which makes it possible to equip the robot with many different tools.

The utility submersible of the future?

It is therefore a machine designed to be versatile. Nauticus Robotics suggests that it could play an important role in the exploitation of offshore resources, such as gas, oil or even wind power. These lines are based on installations that require constant monitoring and regular maintenance, which is not always evident when several hundred meters deep; the Aquanaut, on the other hand, is perfectly equipped to facilitate such routine operations.

© Nauticus Robotics Inc.

It can also take care of the maintenance of large-scale marine farms or simply serve asexcavator to extract rare minerals from the ocean floor. On the other side of the spectrum, he could also inherit missions related to the biodiversity. With an Aquanaut, a group of researchers can, for example, monitor certain delicate ecosystems and take samples from them.

Radford also explains that machines of this type could become important players in the logistics port. Likewise, we can expect a contribution in the installation and repair of the cables of telecommunication submarines. Nor is it forbidden to consider a role in the sector militaryif the Navy finds an interest in it.

A good example of aerospace contribution

As it is, this machine is not of great interest to the public. But on the scale of a company, or even of a scientific or governmental institution or of a company, it could make it possible to considerably facilitate certain operations while reducing their cost and environmental impact, which is crucial in these often very fragile marine ecosystems.

In any case, it is additional proof that research applied to space is not a financial abyss without concrete benefits. It is also a great platform for innovation which regularly leads to very useful technologies for humanity, as Radford reminds us.

The space is great partly because of its “existential” side — it’s perched up there, and people want to explore it. But there are also loads of very real challenges right out there in the ocean, and we need to do more to innovate as part of this blue economy. concludes the former NASA engineer.

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