Look out below: The next 'wave' of autonomous robots

This week, the Navy announced that the MK18 Mod 2 Kingfish underwater unmanned vehicle has been deployed for operations in the 5th Fleet area, a region covering about 2.5 million square miles of water area, which includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, and parts of the Indian Ocean.

The Kingfish is a next generation defense system used by the Navy for mine detection missions, replacing the current Swordfish system.

Here, engineers secure a Kingfish to the deck of a rigid hull inflatable boat. The Kingfish uses side scan sonar to search and discover objects of interest.

Though airborne drones are more well known and more high profile, underwater drone technology is expanding rapidly, and everyone from hobbyists to the military to commercial businesses already has a hand on undersea robotics.

Obstacles to the proliferation of technology like this -- primarily communications and energy -- are being overcome quickly, and the Navy believes that in the next few years we'll likely see swarms of combat-ready undersea drones, the next wave of autonomous robotics.
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Photo by: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Blake Midnight / Caption by:

Mine sweepers

Civilian mariners aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base Ship USS Ponce lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat to conduct tests on two Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility. The Navy recently completed testing of the Kingfish in the Gulf of Mexico and has now deployed the mine sweeping undersea robot to the Persian Gulf.
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Photo by: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Blake Midnight / Caption by:

Echo Ranger

A Boeing Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, dubbed Echo Ranger, is seen here being tested off the coast of Santa Catalina Island in 2011 for possible use by the U.S. military. The minisub was made at Boeing’s defense systems facility in Anaheim, Calif., and is capable of diving to depths of 10,000 feet. Though it's not yet armed, Boeing engineers say they can envision a day when the vehicle would be equipped with long-range torpedoes and sent on covert missions that last for months.
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Photo by: Boeing / Caption by:

Swarm communication

One challenge with conventional AUV, or autonomous underwater vehicle, operation is control over the underwater navigation, which must be overcome to enable the next generation of advances. Researchers envision a system where at least one of the AUVs in a swarm of robots will always be at the surface, allowing the entire swarm of robots to position themselves relative to the mother ship's GPS. A team at the Institute of Computer Engineering at Germany's University of Luebeck has developed an underwater drone called MONitoring System and Underwater Navigation Robot (MONSUN), designed for environmental surveys. Currently, MONSUN uses very short range infrared sensors to maintain the relative position of each vehicle, but eventually, the vehicles will be equipped with acoustic modems capable of communicating with each other out to approximately 50 meters.
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Photo by: U.S. Navy / Caption by:

Bluefin-9 AUV

Bluefin Robotics is developing deep-sea stations that recharge autonomous underwater vehicles. The system is designed to wirelessly charge a Bluefin 9 AUV's 1.5 kWh lithium-polymer Subsea Battery using inductive coils. In addition to recharging the vehicle, the Bluefin's deep-sea charging stations are able to download data from the vehicle and transmit it back to a home base.
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Photo by: Bluefin Robotics / Caption by:

SeaFox deployed to search for mines

In 2012, the Navy deployed a fleet of SeaFox miniature underwater drones to the Persian Gulf to help search out and destroy sea mines as part of a plan aimed at stopping Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz.

Controlled by a 3,000-foot fiber-optic cable, the 88 pound, 4 foot SeaFox is equipped with a video camera, sonar, and explosive charges that enable the vehicle to self-destruct to destroy a mine.
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Photo by: U.S. Navy / Caption by:

DTG2 undersea robots

Undersea robots are currently available for all kinds of uses, even for the everyday hobbyist. This DTG2 ROV, or remotely operated vehicle, is powered by rechargeable batteries and is connected to a 50-foot tether.
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Photo by: Deep Trekker / Caption by:

VideoRay

The Stinger Technology VideoRay Pro 4, seen here, is part of a class of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, that are already in wide use. Rigged to capture high quality video, which enables commercial applications, these robots are portable, affordable, and easily deployable.
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Photo by: VideoRay / Caption by:

Robot Carp autonomous fish

As technology advances, underwater robotics are becoming more efficient and agile, thanks in part to designs that enable them to mimic the movements of nature. Robot Carp -- an autonomous fish developed by researchers from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, is an autonomous underwater vehicle that can be programmed to serve an array of uses, potentially including military activities; oil and gas research duties such as pipeline leak detection; and the laying of communication cable.
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Photo by: National University of Singapore / Caption by:
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