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UPenn, under DARPA’s TEMP program, tests autonomous robotic boats that stick together with hook and tether mechanism (via UPenn)



Natural disasters tend to have an unpredictable impact on the amount of relief support needed to fully cover all humanitarian assistance during such tragic events. Several relief agencies, including the armed forces, are usually called into action and respond immediately. However, delivering that aid rapidly is an area that is still being developed. DARPA has recently employed a new program, the Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform, to investigate novel technologies and systems to assist with maritime disasters by leveraging the use of ISO shipping containers. Through Darpa’s program, UPenn is carrying out research simulating the use of autonomous robot boats during these manmade or natural disasters.



The video above illustrates Penn’s work on the early stages of the project. Engineering professors Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim are testing and developing an army of robotic, shipping-container-like boats that can self-assemble into any desired shape by algorithmically feeding a set of instructions to the boats via on-board computers. With the aid of several students, the researchers have created a navy of 100, foot-and-a-half long boats for testing.


As of now, the boats utilize on-board cameras to detect visual identifiers from neighboring robotic boats. This allows for location tracking of each individual boat to ensure each robot knows where they are in relation to its counterparts and how to best collectively assemble with one another. The boats attach to one another via a hook and tether mechanism that provides dynamic connection stiffness - the connections can be remotely tightened to allow a vehicle to drive overhead or loosened to avoid damage from waves.


Qinetiq NA, developers of the hook and tether mechanism, plan on using the same to technique for full-sized boats. However, the full-sized models are likely to use GPS to track location information over vast coastal areas. DARPA has already developed four modular systems that make use of ISO shipping containers to provide the adequate resources needed during these maritime disaster situations. The four systems include on-board cranes for cargo transfer, life-support modules with water and electricity, tank-like transporters that use air-filled pontoon tracks to carry containers over the water and onto shore, and an air vehicle to carry supplies from the container ship to disaster locations.


DARPA, with the help of UPenn, envisions that one day these self-propelled, autonomous container ships will be first responders to strenuous catastrophes that require aquatic humanitarian aid. For now, there is much work to be done - or from the looks of UPenn’s work, fun to be had.