Scientists develop a fully autonomous boat to map underwater terrain

This fully autonomous boat can create 2D and 3D maps of underwater terrain.
Tejasri Gururaj
Fully autonomousboat developed by scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso can map underwater terrain.
Fully autonomousboat developed by scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso can map underwater terrain.

The University of Texas at El Paso 

Autonomous vehicles and robots are taking over all areas of our life, from reversing deforestation to electric ferries.

Scientists have previously worked on developing autonomous boats that can carry cargo in hard-to-reach areas. However, these boats can't go underwater. 

Bathymetry, or studying the depth and underwater topography of bodies of water, such as oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes, often requires the participation of a crew. 

Now, researchers have developed a fully autonomous boat that can carry out bathymetric surveys and be useful for reconnaissance missions. It was developed by researchers at The University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), led by Laura Alvarez, an assistant professor at the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Resource Sciences at UTEP. 

Alvarez, who specializes in unmanned systems for Earth science, teamed up with Fernando Sotelo, an electrical engineering master's student. Sotelo spent an entire year refining the boat, making it fully autonomous, reliable, and responsive to environmental conditions.

Explaining her motivation behind the development of the boat, Alvarez said in a press release, "There are lots of reasons scientists carry out bathymetric surveys. If you want to work in water-related studies, you need to know the shape and landscape of bodies of water. For example, you might want to map a reservoir to learn about water supply for electrical demand or a river to learn about river evolution or flow patterns."

Construction of the autonomous boat

The rudderless boat features a 3-foot-by-3-foot circular aluminum watercraft supported by a thick black inner tube. It includes four thrusters which allow it to travel up to 5 feet per second and rotate 360 degrees. The advanced boat is powered by a lithium battery as well as a solar panel. This allows the boat to cover up to 472,400 square feet and stay at sea for up to four hours.

To detect debris on the seafloor and calculate water depth, the team used a multibeam echosounder which works on SONAR. The echosounder is integrated into the boat such that it can emit sound waves from the bottom.

"The first time we tested the boat was at the swimming pool at UTEP—just to make sure it could float," said Sotelo in the press release. 

The boat includes autonomous capabilities, such as a failsafe system that triggers a return-to-base function in the event of low battery or high wind gusts, ensuring safe and reliable operation.

Setting sail to new horizons

To provide proof of concept, the team used the boat to develop 2D and 3D maps of Ascarate Lake in El Paso, Texas, and Grindstone Lake in Ruidoso, New Mexico. 

Alvarez further plans to use this boat to study the flow and depth of the Rio Grande River in Mexico. 

"My goal was to make the boat state-of-the-art, and I think I did that. Of course, there's always room to improve. But the system works, and for now, I hope it can make it easier for scientists like Dr. Alvarez to conduct their research," said Sotelo, who worked on the boat for his master's thesis.

The team has published the findings in the journal Sensors, to enable others to replicate and build similar autonomous systems.

Study abstract:

A reliable yet economical unmanned surface vehicle (USV) has been developed for the bathymetric surveying of lakes. The system combines an autonomous navigation framework, environmental sensors, and a multibeam echosounder to collect submerged topography, temperature, and wind speed and monitor the vehicle’s status during prescribed path-planning missions. The main objective of this research is to provide a methodological framework to build an autonomous boat with independent decision-making, efficient control, and long-range navigation capabilities. Integration of sensors with navigation control enabled the automatization of position, orientation, and velocity. A solar power integration was also tested to control the duration of the autonomous missions. The results of the solar power compared favorably with those of the standard LiPO battery system. Extended and autonomous missions were achieved with the developed platform, which can also evaluate the danger level, weather circumstances, and energy consumption through real-time data analysis. With all the incorporated sensors and controls, this USV can make self-governing decisions and improve its safety. A technical evaluation of the proposed vehicle was conducted as a measurable metric of the reliability and robustness of the prototype. Overall, a reliable, economic, and self-powered autonomous system has been designed and built to retrieve bathymetric surveys as a first step to developing intelligent reconnaissance systems that combine field robotics with machine learning to make decisions and adapt to unknown environments.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board