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UH Robots Impress NASA, Navy

dean sensui / dsensui@starbulletin.com
after a day's test, the robotic vehicle sauvim was hauled out and washed down with fresh water to prevent corrosion. technician kaikala rosa checked the battery packs after the machine was back on land.

uh robots impress
nasa, navy

officials hope such
robots can be used for
ocean and space work

by helen altonn

navy and nasa officials are looking to the university of hawaii mechanical engineering department and a spinoff company to solve problems in developing robotic vehicles for deep-ocean or space work.

"there is tremendous growth potential for this work," said homayoun seraji, supervisor of nasa's telerobotics research and applications group at the jet propulsion laboratory.

robotics presents common problems, whether underwater or in space, he said.

seraji was among officials recently here watching demonstrations of two robots built by researchers and students in the mechanical engineering department's autonomous systems laboratory.

one is a small autonomous underwater vehicle called odin (omni-directional intelligent navigator), being used to test instruments. it was a prototype built about 12 years ago, largely with $500,000 awarded to professor junku yuh as a national science foundation presidential young investigator.

the latest, more ambitious robotic vehicle is sauvim (semi-autonomous underwater vehicle for intervention mission), funded by the office of naval research.

odin performed in the uh pool for a semiannual site visit by funding agencies and evaluators, and sauvim was lowered into the water off snug harbor for the first time.

"we didn't know if it worked at shallow water, even," yuh said. "we don't know if it will work in deep water. we will make it work. that is our goal."

the company marine autonomous systems engineering was formed by the high-tech scientists to take over the engineering development, yuh said.

song choi, associate director of the uh autonomous lab, is director of the new company. yuh, the lab director, heads the sauvim project with tae won kim.

dean sensui / dsensui@starbulletin.com
university of hawaii researcher giacomo marani pre-programmed the robotic arm to use a pen to write letters on a white board in a demonstration thursday. this seemingly simple task requires the robotic arm to retrieve a pen, position itself onto the board by sensing the amount of pressure it is applying, then make the necessary motions to write the letters.

yuh said most autonomous underwater vehicles are used just for mapping, but sauvim will be unique because of a robotic arm, which is about 46 feet long and weighs 80 pounds.

sauvim has been in development since 1997 at a cost of about $4 million, and $2 million is needed to complete the system in two years, yuh said.

the aluminum vehicle has an array of computers and sensors enabling it to process information and make semiautonomous decisions to perform a task, he said.

"we provide rules; he uses the rules to make a decision," yuh said.

many uses are envisioned for the vehicle, from recovery of wreckage to plugging and unplugging instruments on the ocean bottom or pipeline surveillance for oil companies.

"there are lots of robotic vehicles," said frederick cancilliere, advisory committee member from the naval undersea warfare center. "what isn't there is the ability to autonomously do this (with a robotic arm)."

yuh said the pacific missile range facility on kauai has immediate use for a deep-sea robot. uh scientists also could use it to put instruments in the ocean or on the loihi seamount at a much cheaper cost than using a submersible, he said.

powered by batteries, the small vehicle can work to a depth of about 33 feet for two to 12 hours, yuh said. it has been refurbished three times with nsf support, he said.

sauvim, a little bigger than a sport utility vehicle and weighing 6 tons, is intended to work at a depth of 18,000 feet. its current battery will allow a two-hour operation, but developers hope to extend that to months, yuh said, explaining that a docking system will be developed to charge the batteries underwater.

choi said the visiting scientists had seen only videos of odin and were amazed at the vehicle's performance. navy seals and harbor security are among groups asking to use it, he said.

"we hope it can help out the economy," he said, stressing the importance of such developments to keep youths here who are interested in technology. about 18 to 20 students have worked on the robotic vehicles, including three high school students, choi said.

seraji, one of the autonomous project's advisers from the beginning, said: "they have come a long way. ... it is a pretty challenging piece of engineering and technology development. it's not like building a car."

he said the uh group stands out because of the robotic arm, which "makes it very practical."

"a human will not intervene closely, just figure out how to get there and get the job done," he said.

uh mechanical engineering department

office of naval research