Submarine robots will soon work together as a team.

Studying the deep ocean floor is cumbersome, expensive and dangerous. The majority of exploration efforts have to employ an autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV), which works without control cables. But many AUVs are specialised, they cannot travel far alone and they can only provide a narrow range of data. Moreover, there are few AUVs and the unexplored kilometres of ocean are many. The work of one European project, however, has the potential to dramatically increase the range and functionality of the world’s AUV fleet using networking technologies and software.

There are many advantages. For a start, multiple AUVs can map a larger area in one sweep, performing a sort of synchronised swimming thanks to some very clever software.

What is more, the formation benefits from the sum of its sensing equipment, making the AUVs potentially much more versatile and capable of getting both a greater variety of data at a higher granularity in one pass.

Coordinating multiple AUVs requires sophisticated software. Seawater is a difficult medium for linking up submarine robots and bandwidth is very limited, which affects the quality and range of the signal – measured in the hundreds of metres.

“So we did not work with individual vehicles, we sought to create a ‘GREX’ box that incorporates communications… tied into the vehicle controls. This can be simply added to existing vehicles, dramatically increasing their functionality,” notes Jarowinsky, of MC Marketing Consulting, a partner of the GREX project.

There is high demand for this kind of functionality and the number of potential applications is enormous, from studying hydrothermal vents and their rich, alien ecosystems to making new discoveries in biology, geology, magnetism and any number of other studies.

The most advanced “alien” life form so far encountered by humanity – a species using chemosynthesis, an entirely new metabolic process to create energy, cells and life – was found by Professor Colleen Cavanaugh at a hydrothermal vent in the ocean deep just 30 years ago.

“We focused on scientific applications in the GREX project. We were interested in fish data for fisheries research, a very important area. We aimed at marine mapping and also the study of hydrothermal vents,” Jarowinsky reveals.

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