The Aquanaut unmanned underwater vehicle, from Houston Mechatronics revealed on Tuesday, May 1, 2018.

The Aquanaut unmanned underwater vehicle, from Houston Mechatronics revealed on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. Patrick Tucker

The US Military Wants Giant Transformer Robot Subs

The future of countermine operations could look like a big bug that can swim for hundreds of kilometers.

DENVER, Colorado — Want to de-mine a patch of ocean floor in hostile waters, deposit classified payloads off an enemy coast, shut off a broken oil valve, or just fight krakens? Texas-based startup Houston Mechatronics on Tuesday unveiled a giant, transforming robotic submarine, partially backed by the Defense Department, for deep-sea precision missions.

The Aquanaut unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, can chug beneath the ocean’s surface for hundreds of kilometers and then transform into a vaguely insect-like robot to perform delicate operations in the watery depths. Its biggest backers are players in the oil and gas exploration like Transocean, which are looking to better maintain oil rigs, offshore equipment, and help with operations. Houston Mechatronics co-founder and chief technical officer Nicholas Radford said the robots might would travel from site to site, like a frog swimming from one lily pad to another without ever having to be pulled out of the water. “‘We intend to blanket the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

While big oil is the primary investor, the Defense Department — through a cooperative research and development agreement with the Navy  — is also supporting the project. Radford expects additional financial funding from other sources within the military soon. The near-term objective is counter-mine missions “in area-denied water, or where you don’t want the presence of a top-side vessel,” he said.

The robot, which can extend from 2.87 meters to 3.5 meters with its arms out, can travel hundreds of kilometers between sites. Once the arms come out, the operator directs the puppet show over an acoustic modem with a range of tens of kilometers.

“Autonomy is a big deal,” especially for military customers, said Radford, but added that for the difficult arm manipulation operations, “We think you can get higher realizations of value in theatre with a human still in the loop [operating the robot] at a low data rate.”