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Defense Contractors Snap Up Submersible Robot Gliders

U.S. Navy contract stirs interest in propellerless AUVs

3 min read
A Spray robot glider
The Life Aquatic: A Spray robot glider gathered data for three months in the Solomon Sea, east of Papua New Guinea, where a French-U.S. research team is studying how regional currents affect El Niño cycles. The Spray is one of three designs competing for a U.S. Navy contract.
Photo: Christophe Maes/Centre Ird

Schools of small fish follow them for company or shade, but sharks, less friendly, have on occasion chomped on their elongated bodies. These new arrivals to the underwater world are small submersible robots known as gliders because they thrust themselves through the water not with propellers but by simply changing their buoyancy. Thanks to this neat trick, gliders consume just a trickle of power and can remain at sea for several months at a time, surfacing only to get a GPS fix and beam data to satellites. A mission using a conventional autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) lasts only hours.

Now it seems gliders have caught the attention of some other big fish. This month, the U.S. Navy plans to announce the winner of a contract for 154 gliders, plus spare parts, launch-and-recovery equipment, and monitoring systems. The order, valued at tens of millions of dollars, sent defense contractors racing to gobble up the leading glider technologies.

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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
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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
DarkGray

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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