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When I wrote my column about DARPA’s AlphaDog, and how the mule-like robot could one day help Marines carry and even recharge their gear in the field, a lot of people were impressed. But agencies whose focus is a little bit more aquatic in nature, like NOAA and the Navy, countered with information about a pretty advanced robot they are already using in the field. While the Marines play with their mules, the Navy and NOAA are swimming with Sharcs.

Sharcs are Sensor Hosting Autonomous Research Craft created by Liquid Robotics, Inc. Whereas the AlphaDog can travel 20 miles on it’s own with limited user intervention, the Sharc Wave Gliders are now routinely swimming the world’s oceans, traveling thousands of miles and going for up to a year without even seeing any humans.

The secret of the sharc is that it has two power systems. The first is an array of solar panels that float above the water on a surfboard-sized keel. That is used to power instruments that can measure just about anything from ocean salinity to the strength of whale songs. NOAA is using an increasing number of Sharc Wave Gliders for research because of this. 

But the second part of the setup is what makes the Wave Gliders so amazing. The surface part of the robot that floats is tethered to a submersible that hangs seven meters below the water. When the top part of the robot rises up on a swell, it pulls the lower part up too. Fins on the submersible direct the water and force the craft forward, sort of how an airplane moves through the air. Then when the float comes off the wave, the lower part of the robot sinks down, but its fins rotate in the opposite direction, and it gets pushed forward once again. So it can always move forward as long as there is wave action. The solar power system at the top of the robot powers navigation control, so it can direct its movements and hold a true course, or its path can be changed remotely by a human operator if needed.

Right now the Wave Gliders are mostly being used for research, but the possibility of more dangerous work like scanning for minefields, or even espionage tasks could be in the cards for an always-on, always moving, low profile craft that can operate independently anywhere in the world without any risk to human life.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 21, 2012 at 8:50 AM


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