Robo-Sailors: Navy-Sponsored Research Spawns a New Generation of Underwater Vehicles

Article excerpt

They look like torpedoes, but their mission isn't destruction. In the mid-1990s, the Navy began funding research for small, robotic vehicles to perform unmanned reconnaissance in coastal waters. At WHOI, that helped spark the development of REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS), designed and built by Chris von Alt, Ben Allen, and colleagues in the Oceanographic Systems Laboratory.

Launched on pre-programmed underwater flight patterns and equipped with a changeable array of sensors, REMUS can map the seafloor or collect data on temperature, salinity, currents, phytoplankton abundance, and other seawater properties. The 5-foot-long, 80-pound vehicle can be launched and recovered by two people from a small boat, without a crane or special handling equipment. Easily programmed, REMUS can work alone for more than 20 hours before its batteries need recharging. It can travel at speeds up to 2.5 meters per second and to depths of 100 meters.

REMUS has proved a remarkable scientific tool, expanding researchers' ability to explore previously inaccessible regions. The Navy also gained a valuable tool: Sailors used several REMUS vehicles to detect mines in the Persian Gulf harbor of Umm Qasr in 2002. …