It was a couple of years ago that we first heard about the Eelume, an eel-like robot designed to perform underwater maintenance and inspections. Well, the latest version of the device, known as the EELY500, is about to begin sea trials in Norway.

First created by Norway's SINTEF research group and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the robot is now being developed by the Eelume spinoff company.

Like earlier versions, this one has a flexible segmented body that is propelled through the water by thrusters, and that's equipped with lights, a camera and interchangeable manipulator tools or sensors. It can be remotely operated when tethered to a surface-located user via a control cable, or it can run autonomously when untethered.

Building on those capabilities, the EELY500 reportedly features improved maneuverability, a better camera and lights, a more powerful battery, and higher data capacity.

When travelling through the water, it straightens its body out like a torpedo for maximum streamlining. It can subsequently bend to squirm through tight spaces, though, plus it can form itself into a U-shaped robotic arm – the latter configuration allows it to brace itself by grasping an immovable object with one end of its body, then performing a leverage-requiring task (such as turning a valve, etc) with a manipulator attached to the other end.

According to the designers, fleets of the robots will be permanently housed in undersea docking stations at locations such as offshore drilling rigs. That way, instead of having to be repeatedly lowered into the water and then retrieved, they can simply be "driven" in and out of the structures as needed – inclement weather, and lack of available surface vessels, will be no object. The robots will also be able to charge their batteries inside the stations, and swap between different manipulator tools depending on the task at hand.

Plans ultimately call for the EELY500 to be used in the Åsgard oil and gas field, located at a depth of 240 to 310 meters (787 to 1,017 ft) off the coast of Norway. Before that can happen, however, the robots will soon be tested for several weeks under more controlled conditions, at a depth of 360 m (1,181 ft) in the Trondheim Fjord.

To see an animated demo of what the robots may someday be doing, check out the following video from Equinor, an energy company that is one of the project's funders.

Sources: Gemini, Eelume

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