Monday, October 11, 2021

These robots can swim underwater, uncover sunken shipwrecks and navigate through a ‘suspended wormhole’

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The journey

Not far away from a partially obscured sea view a workforce of about 65 underwater robots does battle with beautiful spotted salamanders in the world’s deepest well shaft. Inside, about four hours in, “it would take you 7,000 years to swim through the well,” the team’s leader, Lucy Schaufele, 34, told FT. “Now we can walk through it in less than five minutes,” Dr. Schaufele said. Between dives, her team at the University of Portsmouth in Portsmouth, England, employ lasers, underwater accelerometers and pneumatics to calculate depths, recover artifacts and film dives. The results can be seen on YouTube and in a series of books on the topic called “Underwater Exploration of the Ringermaids” or, as they call it, undertapics or underwater portal.

Unexpectedly, the creatures they face are not so different from those found on land: chameleons, reef scorpions, moss dwelling tropical fish, centipedes, monitor lizards and the larger fishes called parrotfish, anemones and amphipods. All have evolved to live off a dark, subterranean world where temperatures are nearly identical to those of the equator, they have been overlooked for many years and have yet to be discovered. “We’re quite literally using technology to discover something new,” said Shoumele. “We’re using technology to do our own separate little exploration of the world.”

Interest in the underwater world has been growing rapidly since groups of explorers, such as Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, began making humanlike experiences possible in the 1960s and 1970s. Technology, in particular, has dramatically changed the ways we are able to experience the underwater world. “Very recently, in the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of marine devices,” said Lucy Weir, 42, of the University of Sheffield in Sheffield, England. Dr. Weir has helped to study the effect of autonomous underwater vehicles — a field known as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) — on the world’s oceans. The machines, made of lightweight, extremely lightweight and highly adhesive materials, swim through the sea, fish, mammals and submarines, digging, floating and working on “sea robots.” Dr. Weir has also been helping to create underwater robots that act as electronic super-soldiers as well as spectrometers for measuring water temperatures, bacteria, ocean acidification and pressure.

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