Researchers Develop Mobile Docking Station for Underwater Robots

The Purdue University team's system enables AUV to perform longer tasks without the need for human intervention.

The yellow underwater robot returned to a mobile docking station to recharge and upload data before continuing its mission. (📷: Purdue University/Jared Pike)

Robots are top choices for search-and-rescue missions and environmental observations. That is, until their batteries die. They are required to return to a base – which is also cool – to have their batteries recharged and data uploaded. This can be quite difficult to achieve if the robot is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) exploring deep ocean waters. Researchers from Purdue University have developed a mobile docking station for AUVs, allowing them to perform longer tasks without human activity. Additionally, the team’s published papers describe how this docking system can be used to explore lakes on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

An AUV cannot transmit and receive any radio signals, such as GPS data, once it’s underwater. Acoustic communication may also be used, but it’s quite difficult and unreliable even for long-range transmissions. This is the main reason underwater robots have a short range of operation. This newly developed mobile docking station helps to overcome this by enabling AUVs to return without human assistance.

“Typically, these robots perform a pre-planned itinerary underwater,” said Nina Mahmoudian, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Then they come to the surface and send out a signal to be retrieved. Humans have to go out, retrieve the robot, get the data, recharge the battery and then send it back out. That’s very expensive, and it limits the amount of time these robots can be performing their tasks.”

The team tested this station on a short mission in Lake Superior. Currently, systems like this already exist, but in the form of a Roomba vacuum. Once the vacuum has completed its cleaning task and runs out of battery power, it returns to the dock to recharge. This idea is similar to what the team has implemented in the mobile docking station, but with a much more challenging environment.

If this system can perform well in a challenging underwater environment, then this technology could have a lot of potential in the future. The mobile underwater docking station has received a patent for its design.

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