Student-Built Maritime Robot Could Improve Search-and-Rescue Missions

Nearly three years after a Malaysian airliner vanished over the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board, authorities called off the search last month, deeming it of one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries.

But fully autonomous boats like Embry-Riddle’s 16-foot catamaran, Minion, could make search-and-rescue missions more effective. Rather than using a large and expensive manned vessel, Minion can be configured to perform navigation and decision-making tasks such as identifying objects, shapes and performing search tasks. The fully autonomous research platform uses a modular payload tray that carries advanced sensing technology and a communications system that can withstand adverse weather conditions, high humidity and heavy precipitation. It also uses sophisticated perception algorithms based on laser range finders, cameras, and sonars to detect and classify objects in its environment.

“The idea is that it’s a research platform that happens to be autonomous,” said Tim Zuercher, Team Minion’s technical lead and a Ph.D. student. “It can measure everything from salinity in an area to different measurements in different spots. The idea is that you wouldn’t have to monitor it all the time, and hopefully that will open up doors for us in the research world.”

Team Minion of the Robotics Association at Embry-Riddle (RAER) was one of 15 university teams that competed in the 2014 Maritime RobotX Challenge in Singapore and one of 13 teams that competed in the 2016 Maritime RobotX Challenge in Hawaii last December. This international competition promotes innovation in the maritime environment by requiring collegiate teams to design and build systems that can autonomously complete several obstacle courses. These challenges included demonstrating navigation and control, finding objects and avoiding obstacles, projecting objects through holes on a tethered platform, and launching a submarine to find underwater targets.

Embry-Riddle’s Team Minion is comprised of over 20 undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. students with majors in the College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, and College of Aviation. Each year, RAER upgrades its autonomous boat to meet the competition’s criteria. During the 2016 Maritime RobotX Challenge, Embry-Riddle took fourth place overall and won the system inspection, technical paper, and team presentation portions of the competition.

Embry-Riddle Mechanical Engineering Professors and RAER Faculty Advisors Eric Coyle and Patrick Currier said that even though the competition is over, the research opportunities for Minion are endless. “We are currently looking for more research opportunities,” Currier said. “This could be used for scanning the bottom of the ocean, surveying the environment, or maintaining security around ports and in military operations.”

Currier added that the boats could also be used in natural disasters such as oil spills. “If you had a fleet of these, you could deploy booms around the oil and launch a plane to survey the oil,” Currier said. “If you had several to deploy from a platform, they could survey the area much faster and more efficiently than humans can.”

Click the rendering below to see the boat overview:





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