Charting new territory with autonomous underwater vehicles
Think there is nothing left to explore on Earth? Think again. Much of what lies under water, for example, remains a mystery. And yet, discoveries on the sea floor could yield valuable insights, notably into our own past. EU-funded researchers have developed robotic vehicles for use in archaeology and other types of research.
The ARROWS project focused on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) designed to support archaeological research. It developed three such vehicles, one of which is about to be commercialised.
The other two, which currently exist as prototypes, can be deployed in support of customers keen to make use of their specific capabilities. “We think that our AUVs could also support research in a wide variety of other disciplines, such as biology, geology and environmental science,” says project coordinator Benedetto Allotta of the Università degli Studi di Firenze in Italy.
ARROWS ended in August 2015, having trialled its AUVs with their complementary capabilities both in the Mediterranean and in the Baltic Sea. One of its vehicles is the U-CAT, a model inspired by sea turtles that uses flippers rather than a propeller to move about. This feature enables it to manoeuver even in very tight spaces such as shipwrecks, and to do so without stirring up mud that might cloud its view.
It is equipped to communicate with the MARTA (Marine Robotic Tool for Archaeology) AUV. This torpedo-style modular AUV can be configured with different types of sonar or optical equipment by exchanging the tubular sections that compose it.
The U_Tracker, a similarly shaped but smaller AUV engineered to be easily deployable even by a single person, completes the fleet devised by ARROWS. It will soon be available to customers, say the partners, whose priorities in the project included producing AUV technology that is more easily affordable. At the moment, Benedetto observes, such vehicles are used primarily for military purposes, and by the oil and gas industry.
While all three AUVs can be used individually, they can also operate in combination, communicating by means of technology developed by the project. The information they collect can be visualised in the form of 3D maps.
It enables researchers to obtain a detailed view of entire tracts of the sea floor, or of specific sites they wish to study — including many locations that might be too deep or too dangerous for divers to explore.