The Future of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles: Exploring oceans and bringing closure to families

By | June 6, 2023

Many know that much of the Earth’s oceans remain undiscovered. Not as many may know, however, that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 helped scientists to learn more about what happens on our ocean floor. 

While the search for MH370 has been unsuccessful, it did unearth valuable information about underwater landscapes, from ridges and volcanoes to ‘seamounts’, or underwater mountains, and even led to the discovery of two 19th-century shipwrecks. 

This data is beneficial for a variety of research fields, such as geology, climate modeling, archaeology, and fisheries. Seafloor mapping is essential to these roles, and projects like Seabed 2030 aim to help. 

The Seabed 2030 project hopes to map the entire ocean floor by 2030. The project will help scientists and researchers to better understand ocean currents, ecosystems, natural resources, and even help to predict earthquakes and tsunamis. The information could also aid archaeologists in piecing together human history, or bring closure to families affected by disasters like MH370.

Another team led by U-M robotics assistant professor Katie Skinneris working to develop a software system that can be added to an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), with the goal of completing several missions at once, saving valuable time and resources. 

The AUV must be carefully taught in order to be able to navigate previously unknown terrain, know which objects to avoid and which to study closely, a stark difference from today’s AUVs which follow a pre-set series of patterns. 

The team plans to use data from the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which contains numerous known and estimated numbers of undiscovered shipwrecks, to train their model. The ultimate goal is to develop technology that can expedite the search for shipwrecks and cultural infrastructure, providing a more efficient and effective means of exploration.

The team hopes that the project and its results will not only aid in scientific discovery, but also help to bring closure to some of the friends and families of passengers aboard the nearly 1,100 planes that have crashed in the Great Lakes. Plans have been made to test a prototype system in the sanctuary in the summer of 2023

Article summarized from U-M Engineering Research News: Building Curious Machines.