Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new oval-shaped submersible robot to perform ultrasound scans to search ships for hollow compartments that may conceal illegal imports.

The new underwater robot was designed by researcher Sampriti Bhattacharyya along with advisor, Ford professor of Engineering Harry Asada, and was introduced during the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

Though designed to check for cracks in nuclear reactor water tanks, the robot has a flattened panel on one side for sliding along an underwater surface, which can be used to inspect a ship for false hulls and propeller shafts.

"If this is cheap enough…why not just have 20 of them doing collaborative inspection? And if it breaks, it’s not a big deal."

The small size and unique propulsion mechanism of the robot allows it to hide in clumps of algae or other camouflage and inspect ships at ports without being visible.

Bhattacharyya said: "It’s very expensive for port security to use traditional robots for every small boat coming into the port.

"If this is cheap enough, if I can get this out for $600, say, why not just have 20 of them doing collaborative inspection? And if it breaks, it’s not a big deal. It’s very easy to make."

Half of the robot including the flattened panel is waterproof and houses the electronics, while the other half contains the propulsion system with six pumps to eject water through rubber tubes.

The electronic section holds the control circuitry, a battery, a communications antenna and an inertial measurement unit with three accelerometers and three gyroscopes, to measure the robot’s motion in any direction.

The rechargeable lithium batteries used in the prototype have a life of 40 minutes allows it to travel between half a metre and one metre per second while pressed against a surface, which provides enough time to check the craft before being recharged.

However, the new prototype has wirelessly rechargeable batteries and modifications to the propulsion system to increase its operation time to 100 minutes on a single charge.

The National Science Foundation has funded this research.

Image: A screen shot from an animated video shows how the robot could be used to perform ultrasound scans. Photo: courtesy of researchers / Massachusetts Institute of Technology.