The waters of Hobart’s River Derwent may be chilly but it’s a far cry from the icy depths of Antarctica, where a tiny Tasmanian-made robot is about to be put to work.
- A world-first 35cm wide Tasmanian-designed and built remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is headed to Antarctica this summer
- Piloted using an X-box controller, the ROV has cameras, lights, brackets for extra tools, and can move in any direction at any altitude
- The ROV will monitor habitats around Davis Station as part of an environmental assessment for a proposed runway
The specially designed, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) has been given a test run at Lindisfarne, ahead of its summer mission to Davis Station where the water temperature will be around minus 2 degrees Celsius.
Made to fit down a 40-centimetre ice hole and equipped with lights and cameras, it will do the kind of research usually reserved for a team of divers.
“We can drill the hole with two people, we can deploy the vehicle with two people, so it’s a much smaller logistical effort,” Australian Antarctic Division biologist Glenn Johnstone said.
Dr Johnstone has piloted ROVs before — but said he’s never used one like this.
“It’s almost like driving an automatic car where you are only really steering,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that easy.”
Equipment has to be robust to survive the conditions in the southern ocean. (Australian Antarctic Division: Richard Youd)
Rather than custom build a controller unit, Tasmanian ROV manufacturer Southern Ocean Subsea (SOSub), used an X-box game handset.
“We’ve tried different types. This is very compatible, with the open-source software, it’s amazingly configurable,” Peter Colman, co-director of SOSub said.
“If they’re damaged, they’re so easily replaced … they’re really a throwaway item.”
The mini-submersible boasts ‘six degrees of freedom’, meaning it can move in any direction, at any altitude.
It can dive to depths of 300 metres for three hours at a time.
Likened to a Meccano toy, it can also be adapted for purpose, with customised brackets allowing scientific instruments to be added to it as the needs arise.
“We can put a small arm on it,” Dr Johnstone said.
“And those small arms are getting more and more sophisticated to the point where it’s almost like manipulating a hand, so we could actually collect things from the sea floor.”
The unit will be used in underwater research, to depths of up to 300 metres. (Supplied: Mike Johnson/Australian Antarctic Division)
This summer, Dr Johnstone’s focus will be on learning the sub’s capabilities.
Once mastered, it will be used for monitoring habitats on the sea bed.
Kelsey Treloar (left), with Dr Glenn Johnstone and Dr Jonny Stark, testing the unit in Hobart. (ABC News: Alison Costelloe)
Some of that data will be used to assess the environmental impact of a planned runway for Davis Station.
SOSub has been supplying underwater technology to the aquaculture industry for several years.
When approached with the Antarctic Division’s brief, co-director Mr Colman said he was wary.
“Normally to build something that’s capable of this, with eight thrusters, you’re talking 400mm square, not 350mm in diameter.
“It’s been a huge challenge.”
The ROV will assess the impact of a planned runway which will be used year-round at Davis. (Supplied: Glenn Smith)
Mr Colman said 3D, computer-aided design and manufacturing were essential to the design and that its capability, adaptability and small size made it a world first.
“The components — the thrusters and the cameras and the electronic speed controllers — that’s off-the-shelf stuff,” he said.
“But the frame and everything is completely unique.”
The $62,000 ROV will be sent to Antarctica later this month.