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Programming Intelligent ­nderwater Robots

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A test of the new programming method used a Slocum Glider autonomous underwater vehicle.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers are testing a new method of programming autonomous underwater vehicles.

Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are testing a new method of programming autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

Most current AUVs are programmed manually, with explicit instructions about where to go and what to do coded into them by researchers. The MIT group is pursuing a method that would enable researchers to provide an AUV with several high-level goals, such as mapping a specific area, as well as information about its surroundings, which would be enough for the AUV to determine how best to meet that goal.

The new system is inspired by and named after Star Trek's Enterprise starship, with different aspects of the system acting like different members of the bridge crew; for example, one part of the system will act as a navigator, while another acts as captain, making higher-level decisions.

The system grew out of work done by principle developer Brian Williams while he was working at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the 1990s. Williams says Enterprise is much faster and smarter than the system he developed at NASA, and is capable of forming plans within a fraction of a second.

In addition to AUVs, Williams' team is exploring other possible applications for Enterprise, including monitoring crops with airborne drones and operating a Mars rover.

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