Survey Technology – From Maritime to Extraterrestrial

A group of maritime engineering students share a futuristic vision to send robots into outer space to explore planetary lakes.

The potential uses for these robots on Earth is also limitless, including sending fleets of drones to provide quick and safe response to natural disasters and creating a “wired ocean” that provides early notice of extraordinary underwater events.

The students have formed their own society dedicated to exploring the next generation of autonomous technologies and during the past two years have taken their purpose-built robots around the world to compete in prestigious events.

Australian Maritime College Autonomous Technologies Society (AMCAT) President James Keane said their fleet included a hydrofoil catamaran, seed planting vehicle, octocopter, hovercraft and autonomous surface vessel.

“The next generation of maritime engineers is nerdishly excited about the applications for autonomous robots. AMCAT is a testament to what’s achievable when you combine proactive undergraduates with the opportunities presented at a world-class college and industry experts such as Dr Alexander Forrest as mentors,” he said.

“If this is what we’re doing at an undergraduate level, then it doesn’t take much to realise that what’s going on at a postgraduate research level is pretty amazing. Our long-term goal is to develop a fleet of autonomous surface vessels, aerial drones and underwater vehicles for coastal surveying and other applications.”

The team raced its radio-controlled hydrofoil catamaran in the inaugural HYDROcontest on the banks of Lake Geneva, Switzerland in July 2014, vying for the title of “fastest and most energy efficient hydrofoil boat” against university students from Switzerland, France, Brazil, Colombia, Australia and the Netherlands.

Despite a series of setbacks including a fire, lost rudder and puncture-causing collision, they returned home triumphant with two awards – taking out second place in the endurance race category and winning the best technology award in the lightweight boat division.

Back in Australia, an AMCAT robot programmed to complete a seed planting mission achieved a top eight finish against competitors from Australian and New Zealand universities at the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition, held in Sydney in September 2014.

Team leader Fletcher Thompson said taking part in the competition enabled the students to build their knowledge in the field of decision making control – a robotics topic not usually covered in their maritime engineering degrees. He said autonomous technologies were set to play a large role in the students’ future careers within the maritime industry.

The octocopter, effectively a helicopter with eight arms and multiple rotating propellers, is kitted out with camera capability and a live video feed that can be linked to a computer or screen.

Designer Zac Pullen said the ultimate goal was to develop a stable and reliable platform for survey work and communication that could be used with the surface vessel developed for the Maritime RobotX Challenge in Singapore.

This major competition saw AMCAT join forces with Flinders University to battle it out for $100,000 in prize money against students from the US, Singapore, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

The teams each received an unpowered version of the 16-foot Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel (WAM-V) from the US Office of Naval Research and a grant to build a battery-powered propulsion system and sensors. The robot was tested on a series of tasks including navigation and control, obstacle avoidance, docking and target identification.

Team AMCAT/Flinders went home with the best hydrodynamic testing award.

“These competitions are amazing opportunities for us to see what’s happening at the cutting-edge of autonomous surface vessel technology,” Mr Keane said.

“They certainly help us toward our long-term goal of developing a multi-platform autonomous fleet capable of adaptive exploration in environments typically hostile to human explorers.” 

Press release; Image: Australian Maritime College