Dirty Jobs: Drone Edition
Robots are frequently advertised as designed to perform jobs that are too dangerous, dirty, or boring for humans to accomplish. Unmanned naval systems have also often been touted as a way to reduce the most expensive component of a Navy's budget - manpower - arguably a claim that has been hard to prove with some platforms. However, an ongoing U.S. Navy robotics program might actually live up to both of these expectations.
Under a program initiated by the Office of Naval Research in 2009, SeaRobotics has delivered the latest variant of the HullBUG (Hull Bio-inspired [formerly bio-memetic] Underwater Grooming)robot cleaner for testing at ONR's Port Canaveral Large Scale Seawater Facility before the system moves into production. HullBUG will autonomously remove the bio-fouling such as algae and barnacles that grow on ship's hulls. Previous versions of HullBUG were tested on frigates at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida.
According to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, "vessel speed is reduced by up to 10 percent from biofouling, which can require up to a 40 percent increase in fuel consumption to counter the added drag. In fact, colonized barnacles and biofilms settled on the hull of a Navy ship translates into roughly $500 million annually in extra fuel and maintenance costs" and potentially $15 billion for the shipping industry world-wide.
"In addition to cleaning duties, the latest version of HullBUG can perform some hull inspection activities, such corrosion imaging and plate thickness sensing. As seems to occur with many Navy R&D programs, there are other somewhat redundant efforts ongoing related to autonomous hull inspection systems.
HullBUG also isn't the only robot hull cleaner under development. The AURORA and HISMAR systems are European projects and the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has developed the Automatic Hull Maintenance Vehicle (AHMV). If successful, HullBUG would be able to clean ship hulls in port 24 x 7. In addition to decreasing fuel consumption, the robotic cleaner could reduce the need for underwater hull inspections by divers and ship dry-docking for hull preservation. This half-decade robotic program may end up paying itself off multiple times over.