MIT SCOUTs for talent

MIT researchers are using kayaks to help develop cooperative autonomous marine robots which could eventually search for survivors after devastating hurricanes or sweep harbours for mines.

The researchers are fitting the plastic kayaks with onboard computers, radio control, propulsion, steering and communications equipment to create Surface Crafts for Oceanographic and Undersea Testing (SCOUTs).

Much of the technology being tested is ultimately intended for use in underwater robots, or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), but testing software on AUVs can easily become prohibitively expensive. SCOUT is an inexpensive platform that eliminates the necessity of tackling one of the more difficult problems posed by AUVs, namely communicating under water.

Operating on the surface means that SCOUTs can take advantage of such technology as wireless Internet and global positioning systems (GPS), which do not work underwater. Researchers are free to focus on fine-tuning other necessary robot functions, such as navigation, with the goal of creating a team that works so seamlessly that a lot of communication is not necessary.

The team has built 10 SCOUTs so far, four of which are owned by the Naval Underwater Warfare Center. The SCOUTs give a standardised platform upon which different projects can build, and are being used in a variety of collaborative efforts at MIT.

Software developed on SCOUT may someday help AUVs search the sea bottom for plane wreckage or allow kayaks to find shipwreck survivors.