Scientists Developing Robotic Lobsters, Eels, To Detect Mines Robot Books

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NAHANT, Mass. (AP) - Lobsters scrambling across the ocean floor and eels gliding through rough waters are usually hunting for food. Soon, robotic replicas of them may be searching for underwater mines.

It's more than just the fantasy of some creative scientists hunkered down in an old World War II bunker here. It's their mission, and its $3 million tab is being paid by the U.S. Navy.

The government is betting a research team led by Northeastern professor Joe Ayers can develop robotic lobsters and lampreys that will do what many mine-sweeping vessels cannot: find dangerous ordnance in international waters eight to 40 feet deep, where wave surges and shoaling make steady searching difficult.

This isn't the first time the government has funded defense projects involving animals. Scientists have modeled machines on everything from cockroaches to dogs. And the Navy has trained dolphins to sweep for mines, though none are known to have been used in actual exercises.

And during World War II, the government funded studies to train pigeons to peck at a keyboard to guide missiles to their targets. If successful, the birds would have been placed inside the missiles.

The robolobsters and robolampreys now under development will have muscles made of nickel and titanium wires triggered by small electrical jolts. At a projected cost of less than $300 each, the marine machines - called "biomimetic autonomous underwater vehicles'' - are meant to be more affordable than existing million-dollar robotic submersibles.

To engineer the robocreatures, researchers at Northeastern's Marine Science Center in Nahant have filmed the sea animals, recording every bit of lobster and lamprey motion. The data eventually will be entered into a microprocessor that will become the robot's brain.

While Ayers and his team work on the robots' bodies, other researchers are developing mine-detecting sensors. Ayers said it hasn't been determined yet if any will be outfitted with mine-detonating equipment or cameras.

The theory behind the scientists' design choice is simple: mimic plans - laid out by Mother Nature - that have enabled lampreys and lobsters to successfully forage for food since the dawn of time.

"Animals have evolved to occupy any niche where we'd like to work, save outer space,'' said Ayers, who heads the project that involves 22 scientists around the country. "They provide proven solutions to the problems of navigation, searching, and sensing.

"The lobster has been a proven solution to the problem of finding underwater objects,'' he noted. "When they hunt for food - that's exactly what you'd want a mine-hunting robot to do.''

Lobsters have the optimal body shape for walking underwater and don't have to fight gravity as humans do, Ayers said, making them some of the most energy-efficient animals around.

As for the snakelike lamprey, scientists hope to simulate its highly efficient undulatory motion in robots that would be ideally suited for detecting floating mines.

Ayers said robolobsters and robolampreys will operate under "supervised autonomy,'' running on batteries and working on their own but sending out sonar alerts when mines are detected.

"It's like a dog out hunting for a body,'' he said. "It barks to tell you it's found something.''

Steven Vogel, a Duke University zoology professor, said using technology to mimic nature isn't always as easy as it looks.

"Sometimes it's worked, sometimes it hasn't. It's a fairly mixed bag,'' said Vogel, whose book "Cats' Paws and Catapults'' examines the differences between manmade and nature-made technologies. "Can you pop something out of nature and into something of ours? Usually the specific hardware doesn't translate.''

Northeastern's Ayers is betting that in his case, it will. When the prototypes are completed by Sept. 1, he believes they will have more uses than detecting enemy mines.

"In the bigger picture, these kinds of robots are much more useful in exploring the surface of the ocean (floor),'' Ayers said. "We know a lot more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean.''

Ayers envisions the robots probing oceans and rivers for pollution and donning cameras to give marine scientists a clearer picture of life in waters too deep for divers to explore.

"I think there's a new respect for this kind of technological philosophy,'' said Dr. Joel Davis, program officer at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Va.

But he warned against jumping to the conclusion that the country's fate may soon rest with the dogs, pigeons and lobsters of the world: "In the military, there are lots of exploratory projects that don't go anywhere.''


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