Robot Turtle Built To Explore Shipwrecks Is Inexpensive And Highly Maneuverable

By Ben Wolford on November 27, 2013 5:02 PM EST

Robot Turtle
Estonia researchers have built a turtle-like robot for exploring shipwrecks. (Photo: mihkell, CC BY 2.0)

It's called U-CAT, but it's more turtle than feline. The robotic turtle, designed by scientists in Estonia, is the newest submersible explorer, created to be among the most versatile wreckers ever invented. In the video below, they demonstrate how its rotating fins allow it to make zero-radius flips and turns.

"The so-called biomimetic robots, robots based on animals and plants, is an increasing trend in robotics where we try to overcome the technological bottlenecks by looking at alternative technical solutions provided by nature," said Professor Maarja Kruusmaa, Head of Centre for Biorobotics at Tallinn University of Technology, announcing the little bot. They said many underwater robots are too bulky and clumsy to explore tight spaces for scientific or investigative purposes.

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U-CAT is scheduled for a world premier demonstration at the London Science Museum from Nov. 28-Dec. 1. It was funded by ARROWS — Archaeological Robot Systems for the World's Seas — an academic effort "to significantly reduce the cost of archaeological operations." It proposes building on the deep investments already contributed by private companies for oil and gas exploration and for military systems. But as the Tallinn University of Technology explains, those robot submarines are big and expensive, and noy really feasible for exploring a shipwreck in the name of science.

But a little plastic turtle-looking thing — that's more like it. "Conventional underwater robots use propellers for locomotion," says Taavi Salumäe, who designed the U-CAT concept. "Fin propulsors of U-CAT can drive the robot in all directions without disturbing water and beating up silt from the bottom, which would decrease visibility inside the shipwreck." It can squeeze into tight places that are difficult or dangerous for divers to reach. And it carries a camera, the video footage from which can be used to reconstruct the wreckage.

According to Discovery News, the U-CAT will first be tested in the Baltic Sea. But, they report, the robotic turtle isn't perfect. It can still get itself stuck or destroyed. It's inexpensive enough, though, that Kruusmaa says, "This way it won't bankrupt the archaeologist."

The machine is a more high-tech version of the OpenROV submersible drone, which is priced low enough that almost anyone could buy one. And its turtle-like transportation method isn't unlike the jellyfish-like flight of this robot that lit up headlines recently. Each was separate from the ARROWS project. "In the ARROWS project, the U-CATs would work in cooperation with larger underwater robots," said Sebastiano Tusa, an underwater archaeologist with the Sicilian Regional Government, in the press release. "Together with image recognition technologies for discovery, identification and reconstruction of underwater sites, would facilitate the work in all phases of an archaeological campaign."


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