Toward Smarter Underwater Drones

Nina Mahmoudian, second from right, and her team of student researchers on the Michigan Tech waterfront, prepare to launch their underwater drone, ROUGHIE, in Portage Lake.
Nina Mahmoudian, second from right, and her team of student researchers on the Michigan Tech waterfront, prepare to launch their underwater drone, ROUGHIE, in Portage Lake.
Mahmoudian’s AUVs, named ROUGHIEs (for Research Oriented Underwater Gliders for Hands-on Investigative Engineering) will be underwater gliders.

Powered only by batteries, they will “fly” slowly through the water simply by adjusting their buoyancy and weight. This will make them safer and more reliable in shallow waters, where a propeller could become tangled in vegetation or cause injury.

That’s important, because the ROUGHIEs will not be exploring the middle of the ocean; they are designed for use near the water’s edge, which offers a special challenge.

 “They come up on the coast, where there’s lots of noise, and we want ours to be able to talk with each other, and perhaps to a mother ship, in any environment,” she said. “That means they’ll have to operate in an area with lots of boats, swimmers and the like.”

Her ROUGHIEs offer additional advantages. They will be modular, allowing users to swap out different components depending on what tasks the drones undertake. And they will cost a fraction of the price of a commercial model to build. That makes them ideal for the trial-and-error process inherent in scientific research.

Underwater gliders and other types of AUVs already play an important role in addressing some of today’s most pressing environmental, safety and biological challenges. Their uses range from detecting dangerous contaminants, like oil spills, to retrieving evidence of climate change. By arming them with smarter software, they would become even better at doing their jobs, including searching an ocean’s depths.

“We need solutions for these cases,” Mahmoudian said. “The disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft is a clear example of why we must do this.”

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