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Researchers Create Aquatic Robot for Search and Rescue Operations

University of Sheffield researchers have developed an aquatic robot that can be used for search and rescue operations in an underwater environment.

The modular robots that could transform search and rescue missions

The scientists will disclose their discoveries at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2016) - the world's biggest gathering in robotics, which will be held later this week, in Stockholm, Sweden.

This latest work views a set of robotic modules, which can be assembled into robots of random shape, just like Lego. This allows robots to be customized to meet the varying demands of their mission.

Every module is a cube that has four micro pumps, which enable it to move about freely in the water. When modules are combined together, they are capable of drawing in fluid from each other and from the environment. The fluid routing through the system of modules makes the robot move. The higher the number of modules in the network, the more accurately the robot moves, and the better it manages with errors. This novel concept is called Modular Hydraulic Propulsion (MHP). Six prototype components of an MHP robot were built, which floated on the surface of water.

Aquatic robot: The robot moves by routing fluid through itself.

The scientists gave the robot a task – to sense and move in the direction of a light source. The robots could complete this job reliably with no central brain. Every module makes its decisions autonomously, and only requires a sole byte of sensor data to do so.

One of the challenges in robotics is to make robots small enough so that they can travel through confined spaces that are otherwise inaccessible. Shrinking robots down, potentially to sub-millimetre scale, puts severe constraints on the hardware and therefore how much information these robots can process.

Dr Roderich Gross, Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, University of Sheffield

Modular Hydraulic Propulsion may provide new answers to problems demanding reconfigurable systems to move accurately in 3D restricted spaces, like the scrutiny of underground water pipes. In the forthcoming years, tiny versions of MHP robots might even cross the vascular network to deliver drugs at the target site or check the patients’ health.

One potential use for a robot like this is during search and rescue operations in an underwater environment. You may not know the situation in advance, and the robot will have to adapt to whatever it faces. The modules could split up and search for survivors more quickly and recombine to lift a heavy object and open up a passageway. This type of robot could also be used by utility companies wanting to deal with blockages or faults in pipes that are difficult and expensive to access from the surface.

Matthew Doyle, PhD Candidate, Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, University of Sheffield

This project was sponsored by an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant. Scientists are now expecting extra funding to progress the research further and visualize how miniature versions of the modules could traverse through 3D restricted spaces and resolve highly complex problems.

The paper Modular Hydraulic Propulsion: A Robot that Moves by Routing Fluid Through Itself would be published in the Proceedings of the 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, IEEE Press.

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