At Sea with Underwater Robots

Underwater robots are helping with oil spills, defining international boundaries, and more

2 min read
At Sea with Underwater Robots

Underwater robots are one of my areas of interest and the last few months have been full of cool news in the UUV realm. From new research initiatives to innovative applications, there's some fun stuff going on. Briefly, some highlights:

  • In current events news, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico led BP to attempt using OceaneeringRemotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to shut off the pipeline (read more about that here). They were ultimately unsuccessful, and BP is collaborating with the US military to see if the have any underwater systems that may perform better, but this is one situation where robots are definitely doing important work in place of humans at depths and in environmental conditions that are extremely dangerous.

  • In mildly horrifying news, the South Korean government is spending $18M to develop underwater crawler robots to do geological and biological surveys. Unfortunately, they're six legged, and I dislike creepy crawly things with more than four legs. They'll only be able to crawl at about 1 mph, but still -- creepy.

  • AUVs can have serious political implications -- in this case, they're surveying the continental shelf off the coast of Canada in the Arctic to determine exactly where the shelf ends. Surveying these areas may allow Canada to claim more of the ocean floor for mineral or oil deposits -- not to mention all the shipping lanes that are opening up as the Artic ice is melting. (We've previously discussed some of the challenges of AUV operation under the Arctic ice)

  • And finally, in some sadder news, a very famous AUV named ABE, developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was lost during a mission off the coast of Chile. ABE was technically in retirement and had been reassembled for one last mission when some catastrophic failure -- probably of one of the glass buoyancy spheres -- at 3000m depth caused what we in the biz refer to euphemistically as an "unintended depth excursion." ABE's loss hits the entire underwater robotics community -- it successfully completed many important research missions and pioneered a lot of deep-ocean robotic technology. Here's an interesting bit from one of the team's engineers on what may have caused the failure, along with a touching tribute from one of ABE's inventors (borrowed from Robert Louis Stevenson)

Image from the Korea Times

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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