The third component is mission guidance, including navigation and control, which is an area of focus for the Flinders team. The key here is to build a vehicle that can move on its own both safely and with purpose.
“You have a map of the area. You have some knowledge of the currents and other things happening, and you give these to the vehicle so it can come up with its own mission plan,” Professor Sammut explains.
“Then you might say you want it to do certain tasks, but how much fuel does it have? How much will it consume to go against the current? It has to work out how many of its tasks it can achieve.”
Conditions can change dynamically underwater, which means the vehicle has to be able to decide for itself what it’s going to do and how to come back safely.
The big challenge now is to develop vehicles that have enough endurance to stay submerged long enough do useful work, because at some point, their batteries will run low. Developing docking stations where AUVs can recharge by themselves – and the autonomous guidance systems that enable them to dock – is one of the main research activities at Flinders.
The ultimate aim for Professor Sammut and his team is to develop vehicles that can get work done unassisted. So, rather than having a submarine-welding robot controlled via cable by a human on the surface, the vehicle has the smarts to do the welding itself.
Research is already underway in this and many other areas, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s coming up next.
“We haven’t even started to discover how far we can go with these things,” says Professor Sammut. “The technology has changed rapidly in terms of sensors and battery capability. The horizon is rapidly expanding for these kinds of potential applications.”