NASA spin-off’s new robot can explore oceans autonomously without recharging

NASA spin-off’s new robot can explore oceans autonomously without recharging
NASA spin-off’s new robot can explore oceans autonomously without recharging

Underwater robots with infinite power

The big picture: Exploring the depths of the planet’s oceans is an immense challenge, even more difficult than space exploration in some cases. The main problems are the brutal pressure and temperatures that make large sections of the seabed completely off-limits to human divers. However, a California tech company may have cracked the code to sustainable ocean exploration.

Seatrec has invented a new type of underwater robot that can theoretically travel the seas indefinitely without needing to refuel or recharge its batteries. Instead, it harnesses the kinetic energy produced by temperature fluctuations to produce power. The company touts the system’s removal of dead battery waste from the seafloor – an advantage over conventional underwater robots.

The system resembles a cylindrical buoy and has been aptly nicknamed the “infinite float.” It relies on phase-changing materials that switch between solid and liquid states as the robot dives and surfaces.

This unique material has a melting point of approximately 50ºF (10ºC), which falls between average ocean temperatures of approximately 40ºF (4.4ºC) and surface temperatures of approximately 70ºF (21.1ºC), making it perfect for this job. . So as it plunges into the cold depths, a paraffin-based material solidifies and contracts, forcing hydraulic fluid through a small generator to charge the robot’s batteries. The material melts and expands as it moves toward warmer surface waters, restarting the cycle.

Seatrec founder and CEO Yi Chao first created the concept in 2011 while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After more than a decade of R&D, the startup is finally bringing drones to market. The Robot Report says the company is also selling its first power module for self-charging dive floats to research labs, universities, government agencies and the military.

This technology could open up many opportunities for ocean exploration and monitoring. For starters, oceanographers could map the roughly 80% of the ocean floor that remains unexplored territory. Seatrec also tested the robot in the field by measuring the intensity of hurricanes in the Gulf using prototypes.

The company is partnering with the Roger F. Wicker Center for Ocean Enterprise at the University of Southern Mississippi to study critically endangered Rice’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico. They will deploy two versions of the infiniteTE float system: one will track ocean conditions, such as temperatures that impact whale habitat, and the other will use hydrophones to listen to the creatures.

Chao expects strong demand from industries such as telecommunications laying submarine cables, offshore oil and gas drillers, wind farm developers, environmental groups mapping marine habitats and companies needing to monitor equipment and seabed conditions.

Looking ahead, Seatrec has announced plans to next commercialize phase-change power for underwater gliders, followed by higher-efficiency liquid-gas energy harvesting systems capable of charging multiple robots simultaneously.

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