While plenty of people might worry about losing their jobs to technology, there's one job no one will complain about handing off to robots: bomb disposal. These machines are good in dangerous situations on dry land, but what if a would-be bomber hides their explosives under a bridge, or stuck to the bottom of a ship? In the future, the US Navy might send in a submarine drone endowed with a pair of inflatable robot arms that are currently being developed by RE2 Robotics.

The Underwater Dual Manipulator system, as the company calls it, is designed to dismantle improvised explosive devices (IEDs) stashed away under boats, bridges, piers, and other underwater structures that regular bomb robots just can't get to. Navy divers could still help out, but ideally, the system would keep them out of the water entirely.

Given the watery environment they'll be operating in, both the inner workings and outer coverings of the inflatable arms will be made of soft materials, and the rig will be attached to an existing Navy Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV). This would allow it to be deployed and controlled remotely from the water's surface.

"Developing the prototype for this program is unlike any robotic arm development that we've completed over the past 15 years of robotic manipulator arm engineering," Dr Andrew Mor, Principal Investigator for the program, tells New Atlas. "Developing this type of robotic arm is extremely cutting edge and novel, not only for RE2 Robotics, but for the industry."

A concept sketch of RE2 Robotics' Underwater Dual Manipulator robot arm(Credit: RE2 Robotics)

RE2 first won the Navy contract to create the system back in October 2015, and since then has sketched out a design for an underwater dexterous manipulation system that it says is light-weight and low-cost. Now it's moving into Phase II, which involves building a prototype, integrating it into an existing UUV and testing it in a controlled underwater environment. That will let the researchers work out how to tackle some of the unique challenges that come from performing such delicate operations underwater.

"There are a lot of conditions to consider when developing a system for use underwater, including environmental conditions, drag on the system, and how to perform precision movements," Mor says. "This is an extremely new area of research and we will have to overcome these challenges through testing and design improvements over time."

Besides bomb disposal, the Underwater Dual Manipulator system could lend a hand to other watery tasks, like performing underwater inspections, maintenance and repairs for offshore gas and oil rigs.

Source: RE2 Robotics

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