Industrial Electronics

Video: Mobile docking system introduced for autonomous underwater vehicles

07 October 2020

Researchers at Purdue University have created a mobile docking system for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that allows the robots to perform tasks for longer periods without the need for human intervention.

Robotic boats used in search-and-rescue missions and environmental studies must return to a base to recharge batteries and upload data. When exploring a vast body of water like ocean waters, this can be a challenge.

"Typically these robots perform a pre-planned itinerary underwater," said Nina Mahmoudian, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. "Then they come to the surface and send out a signal to be retrieved. Humans have to go out, retrieve the robot, get the data, recharge the battery and then send it back out. That's very expensive, and it limits the amount of time these robots can be performing their tasks."

Once an underwater robot is submerged, it loses the ability to transmit and receive radio signals, including GPS data. Acoustic communication can help, but this method is unreliable, particularly for long-range transmissions. Purdue’s solution creates a mobile docking station that allows underwater robots to return on their own without human intervention.

Researchers theorize that if multiple docks were put in place, robots and the docks could coordinate with each other to recharge, upload data and resume exploring. This process would be autonomous, eliminating the time it takes for humans to switch out batteries and gather the data. Long term, Purdue said these AUVs and docking systems could be used in investigations on off-world bodies of water such as those found on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

"What's key is that the docking station is portable," Mahmoudian said. "It can be deployed in a stationary location, but it can also be deployed on autonomous surface vehicles or even on other autonomous underwater vehicles. And it is designed to be platform-agnostic, so it can be utilized with any AUV. The hardware and software work hand-in-hand."

Autonomous robots such as these are already active in the smart home in the shape of vacuums that clean the house and autonomously return to the dock for recharging. While it is more challenging in an outdoor, underwater environment, the principles are the same, researchers said.

"This system can be used anywhere," Mahmoudian said. "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 full research can be found in the journal IEEE Xplore.

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