Navy seeks 'kamikaze' robot to clear mines

One contender for that task is the Transphibian, a 3-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle from Nekton Research.

Today, sussing out bombs on land and from the air is a routine chore for robots in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the U.S. Navy wants a smart class of robo-fish to do the same in some of the world's most dangerous waterways.

Nekton's Transphibian
Nekton Research's Transphibian uses Nektor flexible fins for both propulsion and control. Nekton Research

One contender for that task is the Transphibian, a 3-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) created by Durham, N.C.-based Nekton Research. The Transphibian is designed to identify mines and map the seabed by swimming and crawling through places where troops or ships are likely to follow. Soon, the company hopes to field a type of "kamikaze" suicide model armed with 14 pounds of plastic explosive that can self-destruct and take nearby mines with it. Meanwhile, the human operator stays safely behind the joystick.

This class of AUV is expected to "replace mine-sweeping ships and perform dangerous jobs now done by specialized divers," according to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City Beach, Fla. The military will spend $50 million acquiring AUVs in the next five years, according to one estimate.

AUV mine clearing is not only safer, according to proponents; it's about 20 times faster.

Case in point: an AUV mine-clearing operation in Iraq allowed the U.S. Navy to clear nearly a square mile of harbor in 16 hours--something that would have taken divers 21 days working without the technology, the Navy told the Associated Press.

No easy task: "The closer in you get to any port or harbor, the greater amount of clutter you will encounter--tires, rocks, coral reefs," a Navy spokesman told the AP. "To screen out all that clutter is a huge job and it takes some very, very technologically advanced sensors."

Still, advances in autonomous vehicles are moving so fast, there's no way the Transphibian class will remain state-of-the-art for long. For instance, it uses flexible fins for both propulsion and control, and hybrid gliders for thrust, completely bypassing exposed props. These innovations allow it to clamber over debris and operate in rough water, according to the manufacturer.

However the Navy is spreading its bets by funding another project at MIT's Bio-Instrumentation Systems Laboratory. Scientists there hope to leapfrog other AUVs and produce one "that can hover, turn, store energy and do all the things a fish does." It does this by mimicking the fin action of the bluegill sunfish, according to the university. The scientists have reportedly already successfully tested a fin made from a thin, flexible, cutting-edge, conductive polymer that replicates the fin motions that propel the sunfish.

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