Tech Builds Submarine to Explore Homestake
Dakota Digest - 12/16/2011
Researchers at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology are now in the process of developing an autonomous robotic submarine that can detect microorganisms in hard to reach places. One goal of the project is to send the sub into the flooded portion of the Homestake Mine to seek out rare life forms that live in the dark depths several thousand feet below the earth's surface. SDPB's Charles Michael Ray spoke with those working on the project. He found out that in the long run a submarine of this type could go much further than just Homestake.
What's cooler than a submarine? How about a robot submarine. OK so what's cooler than a robot submarine? How about an autonomous robot submarine that hunts microorganisms. This might sound like science fiction but, not quite, this submarine in the making actually has a name--FRANC.
"It stands for--Floating Robotic Autonomous Nautical Companion, so FRANC with a C yea. The name was given before the acronym," chuckles Andrew Muxen Chief Engineer on the project.
Part of Muxen's job is to help design the control system for the sub's thrusters. Tech is building many of the components for this robot sub in house. Muxen uses a lot of math to model the thruster performance, here's how he explains it.
"We have to do what's called non-parametric system identification and we chose to do a frequency response method in which we excite the system with sinusoids," says Muxen
If you understood any of that--you're an engineer, scientist or mathematician. If you're one of the rest of us then that was likely mostly over your head. But the point here is to illustrate the immense complexity and challenges of this undertaking. The problem researchers like Muxen are trying to overcome in building the control system for the thrusters is just one part of the overall submarine. Designing and putting together the multiple components and software for this whole project is a giant undertaking involving multiple disciplines. And Dr Charles Tolle is the lead researcher on the project.
"There has already been 30 or 40 undergrads working on this project over the last three years and there will be a lot more undergrads and graduate students working on this project before we ever do a lot of real work, it's a very long and very far out goal," says Tolle.
The project involves years of combined work, testing and retesting, tons of computer programming. There is trial and there is error and there is lots and lots of math. In the end Tolle says researchers are aiming to do something no one has ever done--that is build highly mobile submarine that hunts microorganisms and that can make its way through a flooded mine all by itself.
"We're trying to not only just build something that's autonomous and new and go into the mine but we're also trying to push the frontier of control technology and the frontier of mathematics and actually develop new kinds of controllers and new kinds of mathematics to solve the control problems for these vary interesting types of systems."
Dr Tolle says that one big problem to overcome is autonomous navigation. He notes that ground based autonomous vehicles rely on GPS to navigate. But both GPS and radio communications are ineffective underwater. So researchers need a sub that can rely on its own wits to get around, and that's never really been done before.
"Most of the advances in autonomy in the world has come because everybody's cheating--they're using GPS, that's cheating, we don't do that as humans, we don't use GPS as humans to navigate, so true autonomy, in a true sense without a crutch like GPS has not really been developed very well, so it's an extremely hard problem," says Tolle.
Teaching a robot sub to navigate its way through a flooded mine is pretty cool stuff. But, it's not the end of the story. What's cooler than an autonomous robot submarine that hunts for life in a flooded mine? How about one that hunts for life on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. While this isn't anything the current generation sub can do, it remains on the horizon. It's a target many scientists around the world have in mind. This is why the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium is helping to fund this project via a grant from NASA. It's a shoestring budget, between five and ten thousand dollars a year. Compare this to a typical autonomous sub program at the Navy of over two million dollars. But Tolle says the NASA funding here is still enough to give the students a shot at contributing.
"We're trying to get in the game from that little tiny seed money, can we build... We're actually going to embarrass the country right, we going to build a high tech submarine on almost nothing--and that's what we do," says Tolle while laughing.
Any mission to Europa is likely years off--with huge hurdles to overcome--but for researchers like Dr Charles Tolle, these big problems, are the best one's to take on.
"That's what we want to do we want to work on the hard problems if we're not working on the hard problems than what are we here to do. If we can't tackle the really hard problems than what's the purpose," says Tolle.
When it comes to the hard problems - there are plenty in the future. An early version of this submarine could see its first test in a swimming pool by next year, sometime after that the submarine named FRANC will get its first taste of Homestake's water, if it performs well there the sub like this could be tested under the frozen waters of Lake Yellowstone. With years of work, and some luck some of the technology developed here in South Dakota could someday help hunt for alien life on a frozen moon--and what is cooler than that.
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