Imagine an Aircraft Carrier Made Out of ... Robots

Next up: autonomous boats for maritime disasters

Imagine that there's another oil spill along the lines of BP-in-the-Gulf. Imagine that our relief work following the disaster could be waged not just with human effort, but with technological ability -- with the help of, specifically, robots. Even more specifically: robotic boats.

Soon, you won't have to imagine it. DARPA has been experimenting with ocean-based robotics through its Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform -- an effort that aims to make use of globally standardized shipping containers to build ad-hoc infrastructure during crises. And at the University of Pennsylvania, engineering professors Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim have been leading a team working on that project in conjunction with the governmental agency. Kumar and Yim are focused on figuring out ways for "swarms" of robots to interact with each other in marine environments, building structures themselves according to algorithmic commands. The main challenge they're tackling: to determine the best way for each individual robot to operate without getting in the way of the other robots.

As Penn explains it:

The boats are labeled with a visual identifier that can be read by a camera, much like a QR code. The camera system feeds location information to each boat's onboard computer, enabling them to assess where they are in relation to their fleet-mates. Operating in the open ocean with no cameras overhead, the full-size boats will use GPS for their location information.

Once deployed, the researchers only need to provide the boats with a desired final shape, and the robots do the rest.

To do their testing of the robo-boats, the researchers built a fleet of 100 model vessels, each about 1.5 feet long -- and they've been testing them in a pool at a Penn aquatics center. The extremely telegenic results of that work -- robotic boats, in an Olympic-sized pool! -- are captured in the video above directed by Kurtis Sensenig. (If the video feels familiar it's because he also directed this viral hit, in which a swarm of quadrotors performs the James Bond theme song.) But the real results, the team is hoping, will play out in natural waters, during actual emergencies. And they'll take us one step closer to developing robots that can communicate not just with us, but with each other.

For more videos from the University of Pennsylvania, visit the YouTube channel

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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