Editorial Feature

Eco-Robots Can do the Underwater Tasks That Humans Cannot

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Large collective action is a sign of an industry trend; thus, Robots in Service of the Environment (RSE), a non-profit organization made up of Scientists, is signaling environmental robotic applications are already in the works.

RSE’s first aim: reducing lionfish, a marine creature, that can, each, reduce fish biomass on a reef by 80% in just one month. Coral reefs then die. Living in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean, lionfish have withstood attempts to reduce their numbers through standard fishing and trapping.

Using crowdfunding, RSE launched its prototype robot in April 2017 in Bermuda that captures lionfish en masse at depths not swam to by hunting divers. Called Guardian LF1, RSE designed the robot, which costs less than $1000, to move below a hunting diver’s depth of, say, 80 feet to 400 feet. It will stun the fish and then collect 10 at a time before hauling them to the surface. The Guardian’s ability to move to so many areas is vital. It is not just about depth. Sports divers are often not hunting far from shore so the eco-robot’s ability to go distances too is a benefit.

Once robots are manufactured to scale, they can then be brought around the world by fishermen. RSE intends, therefore, not just to market to fisherman but to help market lionfish to generate demand for its meat.

The Guardian LF1 undersea robot consists of two main components: an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with an innovative capture mechanism, tethered to a remote surface control station. The underwater ROV is deployed from the ocean surface to seek out lionfish. Via a game controller, an operator at the surface controls the Guardian LF1’s movements to locate and capture the sea creatures. Eight separate thrusters mounted on the ROV enable it to move smoothly, regardless of undersea currents, through all planes of motion to maintain positions.

Once the operator identifies a lionfish through cameras and lights on the ROV, a pair of electrodes applies a low voltage electric current to the water to stun and immobilize the fish. Marine Biologists are accustomed to using such technology to humanely capture and release fish unharmed.

As soon as the lionfish is immobilized, it is quickly suctioned into a containment vessel on the ROV through an innovative suctioning system. The design is modular so that future versions will be able to hold more or fewer fish depending on the requirements.

An environmental robot application already commercialized, but outside the ocean, is Spread’s lettuce. Spread, a company based in Japan is cultivating robots to pick lettuce that is grown indoors in sterile conditions on shelves. Once the robot does the initial gathering, humans still need to sort good lettuce from the bad.

Spread views indoor agriculture and the use of robots in them as clean and energy-efficient modern farming that is suited for places in the world where food production is difficult. The company, that is using a franchising model to grow its business, boasts of the vegetable factory’s lack of need for soil, certain climate conditions, or pesticide use. With conditions controlled indoors, crops to become more predictable with lettuce yields at 30,000 heads of lettuce per day or about 10 million per year.

Other eco-robots in use include:

  • Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider: Operating underwater at depths of 15 meters, the Wave Glider is considered the first unmanned surface vehicle to be powered by a wave and solar energy. Not needing fuel for up to a year, it can collect and transmit real-time data, including fluctuations in water temperature in the arctic.
  • iRobot's PackBot and SeaGlider:  Having been developed for military use to undergo a drop from six feet onto concrete, the PackBot, mounted with live video and sensors and positioned via remote controllers, has been used to explore the nuclear radiation debris in Fukushima, Japan. Safely away, people can measure radioactivity and view debris through streaming cameras.
  • Like the PackBot, the SeaGlider is able to monitor physical, chemical, and biological conditions including hydrocarbon monitoring at up to 10 months and thousands of miles in the ocean and at depths up to 1,000 meters. Though it must be powered by battery, the SeaGlider also uses the ocean for thrust. Costing less than manned research vehicles it has been used by Oceanographers, including those assessing the BP oil spill of 2010 and others such as Officials with the U.S. Navy.

In addition to physical, chemical, and biological measurements, SeaGlider can be used for the following tasks:

  • Tactical oceanography
  • Environmental monitoring
  • Data gateway
  • Storm monitoring
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
  • Navigation
  • Active acoustic monitoring of biologics
  • Passive acoustic monitoring of biologics
  • Current profiling
  • Tracking and data capture from acoustic tags

Sources and Further Reading


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