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Underwater Robots Know Where They're Going

Software that enables autonomonous underwater vehicles to avoid obstacles may someday help spacecraft chase asteroids

1 min read
Underwater Robots Know Where They're Going

Twisty underwater ravines and seas with moving icebergs provide tricky terrain for an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to navigate; that’s why underwater vehicles sent to investigate such areas rely on remote piloting from shipboard.

That won’t be necessary for much longer, according to engineers from Stanford University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). They have developed a system that allows an AUV to consider both an existing terrain map and its own view of obstacles in its path as it “flies” over the sea floor.

Stanford doctoral student Sarah Houts took an existing terrain-relative navigation system developed by Stanford and MBARI—one that allows an AUV to navigate by matching its altitude to a terrain map—and added algorithms that enable the vehicle to plan its route to steer around obstacles spotted ahead. Eventually, Houts indicated, the system should be able to go into unmapped areas and find its way around safely.

Houts hopes to adapt this technology to an upcoming MBARI effort to use AUVs to follow icebergs around and sample them. NASA’s program on Astrobiology Science, and Technology for Exploring Planets might someday use a similar system to monitor asteroids. (NASA is funding Houts’ work.)

The system had its first test in Monterey Bay earlier this month, flying over an underwater cliff at a constant altitude. It will undergo trickier tests before the end of the year, and Houts expects it to be fully operational next year.

Photo: Earlier this month, this autonomous underwater vehicle tested software that enables it to adjust its path according to obstacles or uneven terrain spotted in its path. Photo credit: Sarah Houts/Stanford University

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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
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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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