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Swimming Robots Could Keep Our Ports Safe

Sep 30, 2014 01:52 PM EDT

MIT recently introduced the world to a tiny robot designed to carry out a big responsibility: securing our international ports. Taking ultrasounds of hulls and water tanks, enthusiasts are suggesting that this little automaton can not only identify where smugglers would stash their contraband, but could potentially  dentify the presence of invasive hitchhikers as well.

The football-sized robots in question are submersible and boast a unique propulsion mechanism that allows them to silently drift toward targets for port inspection undetected. The team behind the design even suggested at the recent International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems that groups of these bots could hide in local seaweed, swarming a target in the place of one or two traditional inspection vehicles.

"It's very expensive for port security to use traditional robots for every small boat coming into the port," MIT's Sampriti Bhattacharyya, who helped craft the bots with the help of senior colleagues, explained in a recent release."If this is cheap enough - if I can get this out for $600, say - why not just have 20 of them doing collaborative inspection? And if it breaks, it's not a big deal. It's very easy to make."

Bhattacharyya achieved that "ease" with the help of 3-D printing technologies - the same kind of technologies that have been used to replace expensive machining techniques as NASA develops its new flagship rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). (Scroll to read on...)

According to the researchers, the bots will one day work like mini stethoscope-toting investigators, sliding a flattened panel along the sides of a ship's hull. Underwater ultrasound technology will be used to detect the presence of things that should not be, such as false hull and propeller shafts and potentially even the presence of some larger invasive species (i.e. fish or crustaceans) hitching a ride in undumped ballast.

Nathan Betcher, a special-tactics officer in the US Air Force, told MIT that he has been following Bhattacharyya's work for some time - ever since the technology was repurposed from the simple inspection of nuclear reactors.

"I am particularly interested to see if this type of technology could find use in domestic maritime operations ranging from the detection of smuggled nuclear, biological, or chemical agents to drug interdiction, discovery of stress fractures in submerged structures and hulls, or even faster processing and routing of maritime traffic."

However, only time will tell if this technology truly has a place at our all-important ports.

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