Robotics

Roomba-inspired docking station keeps underwater robots charged up

Roomba-inspired docking statio...
An underwater robot ports with the mobile docking station developed at Purdue University
An underwater robot ports with the mobile docking station developed at Purdue University
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An underwater robot ports with the mobile docking station developed at Purdue University
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An underwater robot ports with the mobile docking station developed at Purdue University

Underwater robots that operate autonomously could find use in all kinds of areas, from studying the ocean to the exploration of other planets. Scientists at Purdue University have developed a type of mobile docking station that not only enables these machines to stop by for a recharge, but offload their data at the same time, offering a way for them to operate for far longer periods without human input.

We’ve seen the development of mobile charging stations for drones that could greatly extend their range, and the Purdue scientists are pursuing similar solutions for underwater robots. This obviously poses another set of challenges given the marine environment, but the team found inspiration in a modern household appliance.

“An autonomous vacuum, like a Roomba, does its vacuum cleaning, and when it runs out of battery, it autonomously returns to its dock to get recharged,” said aerospace engineer Nina Mahmoudian, who led the research. “That’s exactly what we are doing here, but the environment is much more challenging.”

Underwater robots differ from robot vacuums and drones, however, in that they can’t rely on typical communication signals such as GPS or radio once they plunge beneath the surface. This means that they typically follow a pre-programmed path and return to the surface once the battery goes flat, where human handlers retrieve their data and recharge the batteries.

“That’s very expensive, and it limits the amount of time these robots can be performing their tasks,” says Mahmoudian.

Mahmoudian’s solution is driven by an algorithm that re-routes the robot’s path during operation, enabling it to dock with a surface vehicle for the purposes of recharging or to hand off data. The team demonstrated this system through short exercises in Lake Superior, and hope to build on this with new versions featuring multiple mobile docks.

According to the researchers, the portable nature of the docking station means it could be used in all kinds of scenarios. One of the more imaginative examples involves sending it along on missions to explore distant worlds, such as Saturn’s moon Titan, which contains lakes scientists would love to one day investigate.

“This system can be used anywhere,” said Mahmoudian. “Robots on land, air or sea will be able to operate indefinitely. Search-and-rescue robots will be able to explore much wider areas. They will go into the Arctic and explore the effects of climate change. They will even go into space.”

The research was published in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, while you can hear Mahmoudian describe the work in the video below.

Autonomous Underwater Docking

Source: Purdue University

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