Move Over, Jacques Cousteau—This Robot Turtle Investigates Shipwrecks

By Joelle Renstrom | 8 years ago

U-CATWhile drones and rovers are common in the robot-related headlines these days, robots are slowly but surely taking to the seas as well. We’ve got robotic jellyfish and robots that can change color, a la cuttlefish and octopi. Now we can add a robotic turtle to that list.

The U-CAT underwater robot will debut at the London Science Museum’s Robot Safari, a futuristic landscape in which robots that look and act much like wild animals populate the wilderness. They have robotic spiders, piranhas, fish, bats, and, of course, the robotic turtle. This exhibit sounds awesome — if you happen to be in London over the next three days. But the turtle isn’t just there for the pleasure of museum-goers — it’s actually got a much more interesting job.


Designer Taavi Salumae of Tallinn University of Technology’s Centre for Biorobotics developed the U-Cat to do some deep-sea diving and investigating, particularly of difficult-to-reach and hard-to-see shipwrecks. U-CAT’s small and sleek design and adept maneuverability makes it the perfect tool to use for shipwrecks, which often have tight spaces. Like a real turtle, U-CAT uses its flippers to swim around, rather than using propellers or cables. It can swim in any direction and can turn and change direction quickly.

The fins are useful not only for maneuverability, but also to avoid stirring up sediment from the wrecks. Thus, the U-CAT can maintain visibility, which is important given that its on-board camera can capture its discoveries and help marine archaeologists create maps of the insides of shipwrecks. Robot designers are increasingly creating biomimetic robots based on animals and plants, as nature has solved many of the problems encountered by robot developers.


Wreck diving, particularly at great depths and low visibility, is dangerous for human divers, so the U-CAT is a great alternative and can stay underwater for longer periods of time without risk. The robotic turtle will work with other, bigger underwater robots—the kinds currently being used for defense work and in the oil and gas industry — as well as with image reconstruction programs to help provide as detailed a picture of the wrecks as possible. U-CAT will get its first real-world experience next year during field tests (aren’t they called something else for a project like this?) in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas.