Subcultron: Swarming Robots That Keep an Eye on Waterways

Scientists develop self-directing robots to monitor water conditions

Source: Subcultron

Innovator: Thomas Schmickl
Age: 46
Zoology professor and founder of the Artificial Life Laboratory at the University of Graz in Austria

Form and function
Subcultron is a swarm of at least 120 self-directing, underwater robots being developed by scientists in six countries to monitor Venice’s polluted waterways and transmit environmental data to government officials.

aPad
aPad
Source: Subcultron

1. Design
The robots, shaped like fish, mussels, and lily pads to mimic the species’ hydrodynamics, carry sensors to monitor water conditions like temperature and chemical composition.

2. Direction
The robots split up to patrol areas of interest, such as a damaged water main or ship, beyond what individual robots could cover. The swarm communicates via the Internet-capable lily pads.

aMussel
aMussel
Source: Subcultron

Energy
The robots use lithium ion batteries and solar cells for power. (Yes, enough sunlight gets through.)

Recon
Some of the robots carry cameras. Others have electrodes that allow them to “see” by measuring objects crossing the electric fields they generate.

Control
Using wireless signals, human monitors can take over from the swarm’s AI software if something goes wrong.

Funding
The European Commission has granted the project €4 million ($4.4 million).

Next Steps
“The ability to take lots of data and understand the patterns with a mobile underwater system is really unprecedented,” says John Long, a professor who heads the robotics research lab at Vassar College. Schmickl showed what he calls “very rough” prototypes at a Venice expo in the fall and expects to test new models in April. Eventually, he says, he plans to build robot swarms that can monitor the oceans or even faraway moons that have water.

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