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Ad Astra! JPL's Autonomous Undersea Drones

A research team from JPL and other institutions is trying to develop artificial intelligence to guide undersea drones that might also work in the exploration of seas on other worlds, like Europa.


(JPL's Autonomous Undersea Drones)

A fleet of six coordinated drones was used to study Monterey Bay. The fleet roved for miles seeking out changes in temperature and salinity. To plot their routes, forecasts of these ocean features were sent to the drones from shore.

The drones also sensed how the ocean actively changed around them. A major goal for the research team is to develop artificial intelligence that seamlessly integrates both kinds of data.

“Autonomous drones are important for ocean research, but today’s drones don’t make decisions on the fly,” said Steve Chien, one of the research team’s members. Chien leads the Artificial Intelligence Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “In order to study unpredictable ocean phenomena, we need to develop submersibles that can navigate and make decisions on their own, and in real-time. Doing so would help us understand our own oceans -- and maybe those on other planets...”

“Truly autonomous fleets of robots have been a holy grail in oceanography for decades,” Thompson said. “Bringing JPL’s exploration and AI experience to this problem should allow us to lay the groundwork for carrying out similar activities in more challenging regions, like Earth’s polar regions and even oceans on other planets.”

The earliest reference to the idea of an undersea autonomous robot in science fiction that I know about is the Wabbler from Murray Leinster's eponymous 1942 short story.

Splash! The Wabbler plunged into the water with a flare of luminescence and a thirty-foot spout of spume and spray rising where it struck... It dived swiftly for twenty feet... Then its falling checked. It swung about, and its writhing tail settled down below it... and then slowly, it settled downward. Its ten-foot tail seemed to waver a little, as if groping...

Via NASA.

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