YORK ## Here come the underwater robots.
Scientists will use them to count fish and measure currents. Ports will use them for security in harbors. The Navy will use them to look for mines near docked ships.
They're autonomous underwater vehicles - AUVs, for short - that are battery-operated and unmanned. Users tell their computers how deep to dive and how far to travel. They collect all manner of data from a wide array of sensors and sonar equipment. Then they resurface when they've completed their missions.
And just as unmanned airplanes are expected to see explosive growth over the next 10 to 15 years, so, too, are underwater robots. Navy estimates call for 100,000 of them to be deployed worldwide within the decade.
And an eight-person York County company - Sias
Patterson Inc., founded in 1996 - is poised to take advantage of that growth. One of the first companies in the country to
make autonomous underwater vehicles, Sias Patterson - on Newsome Drive off Old York Hampton Highway - is hoping to double
in size every year over the next five years.
"We think that's a very realistic projection," said Jim Sias, the company's president and co-founder and a former industrial-design professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. "It's taken a little bit longer than we thought it would to get here, but we're in on the ground floor. We know that this is a very robust product, and we know it works."
Some companies are making robots to plunge ocean depths, down to 36,000 feet, but Sias Patterson's robots are designed for shallow waters - 500 feet or less - where the company thinks the better opportunities lie. Sias Patterson has a handful of systems working or under development. The current systems - which range from $150,000 to $300,000 in price - use the Windows XP operating system and the LabVIEW programming language.
One robot, a 160-pound system called the Fetch2, is operating off the Gulf of Mexico's coast, collecting data on wave heights for the Navy.
A second Fetch2 - being purchased by the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA - is being outfitted with sensors to count fish in the Gulf of Alaska and near Antarctica. The agency's officials say the robot will get a more accurate count than bigger craft.
"The fish try to avoid ships. They say, 'I hear a ship propeller - let's run,' " said Mark Patterson, the company's co-founder, chief scientist and an associate professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "But with the Fetch, they think it's just a big fish, so they stay."
Sias Patterson also has made a much larger robot for Northrop Grumman Newport News to help develop future submarine designs. That vehicle - NNemo1 (short for "Newport News Experimental Model 1") - is about 20 times the size of Fetch, at about 4,000 pounds, and has a flatter form, an extra propeller and more rudders.
"It's Fetch on steroids," Patterson quipped.
NNemo1 makes it easier for the shipyard to conduct its testing. In the past, engineers often had to ride in boats alongside sub models, operating them like remote-controlled cars. Now they can just tell the robot what underwater maneuvers to make, and it will resurface when it's done.
Sias Patterson delivered the robot to the yard late last year. In December, Northrop engineers - together with Sias Patterson officials - took the robot to Lake Rawlings, a filled quarry south of Petersburg. They rented the lake for a week for the first round of testing.
On Friday, yard engineers were conducting more indoor tests at Sias' York County offices. "We're making sure that when we tell the rudders to move 10 degrees, they actually move 10 degrees," Northrop Grumman Newport News submarine test engineer Doug Hubbner said.
The yard is using the robot to validate the accuracy of company software that predicted how the NNemo1 hull would move in water, said Jim Underwood, an engineering designer at the shipyard.
The yard has years of data on how a traditional cylindrical-shaped sub operates but has less data on other sub shapes - such as that used on the flatter NNemo1. "We're doing this to prove out our design tool," Underwood said. "It can open the door for us to apply the prediction program for new hull forms."
Aside from Sias Patterson, two other companies are working on underwater robots. One is Hydroid of East Falmouth, Mass., and the other is Bluefin Robotics of Cambridge, Mass.
Those companies, both of them larger than Sias Patterson, grew out of research programs sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and have gotten millions of dollars from the Navy for development. Hydroid has built about 50 undersea machines, while Bluefin has about half of that, Sias estimated.
But Sias said his system was less costly and easier to update than the competing systems because it used commercial off-the-shelf technology, rather than custom parts. It's also easier to repair, he said.
When NOAA was considering buying a Fetch robot, Sias had an official from the agency take it apart and put it back together during a two-hour boat ride. That convinced the agency to buy it, Sias said.
"I wanted a system that the user can fix himself and correct it in a timely fashion," he said. "I have a very high regard for field serviceability."
Sias and Patterson met in the late 1970s, when Patterson traveled to Rochester to visit his parents, who were Sias' neighbors. Patterson mentioned that he wanted to build oceanographic-research equipment, and Sias said he could help. They soon got into the underwater-robot business.
Both said they invested a significant amount of their own money in the business but even more "sweat equity." In the late 1990s, Sias would drive or fly to Hampton Roads from Rochester - about 540 miles - about once a month to work with the company. But now, he hopes that it will all prove its worth.
"I never worry about it not happening," Sias said of the future expected explosion in underwater robots. "We're simply trying to have our company grow as much as possible when it happens."
March 1, 2004