Ladies and gentlemen, meet the latest entry into the field of undersea archaeology: a robotic turtle. Dubbed U-CAT or by the team that developed it, this small, pill-shaped bot is designed to explore deep-sea shipwrecks, where its unique design allows it to access places too dangerous, deep, or small for humans to reach. In order to help it do its job more effectively, it's got a number of unique design features not present in exploration drones.
U-CAT and its kin are the result of an EU-funded initiative aimed at making underwater
archaeology easier, known as the Arrows Project. In addition to U-CAT,
several larger underwater robots will be tested in tandem in the
Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas. Together, these robots will not only
revolutionize the field of underwater archaeology, but provide an
opportunity to study real-world deep-sea animals.
The robot is equipped with four small, independently-driven flippers instead of propellers, allowing it to achieve an unprecedented degree of underwater maneuverability. As a result of its flippers, U-CAT is able to swim both backwards and forwards, travel directly upwards, and even change direction in tight spaces.The flippers have another added benefit, as well - unlike propellers, which tend to stir up obstructing dirt and sediment, Arrow's manner of propulsion is relatively calm and quiet, driving the robot without disturbing the water around it.
The little bot is furthermore capable of operating remotely for periods of up to several hours, recording everything it sees with its onboard cameras. This, in turn, allows archaeologists to reconstruct a map of the boat without ever having to set foot underwater. Even better, it's designed to be cheaper than other underwater exploration vehicles, meaning smaller organizations will be able to afford the use of it, and even if it gets stuck somewhere "it won't bankrupt the expedition."
Along with U-CAT, a number of robots were showcased over the weekend at at the London Science Museum's Robot Safari Exhibit. These included a cheetah cub, bat, school of fish, salamander, and even a tumbleweed. These robots were all presented in simulations of the environments their inspirations would have inhabited.
See, U-CAT is part of a new breed of "biomimetic robots;" which imitate
animals and plants. This is, says Centre for Biorobotics Professor
Maarja Kruusmaa, "an increasing trend in the world of robotics, where we
try to overcome the technological bottlenecks by looking at alternative
technical solutions provided by nature."
Hey, it makes sense, after all. Structures present in the natural world are the result of centuries of trial-and-error through evolution. Imitation isn't just the sincerest form of flattery in this case - it's sound science.