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Investigating Coastal Waters With a Benthic Crawling Robot

By Rob Knochenhauer

C-TALON at Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts, in April 2011.
In the mid-90s, Foster-Miller Inc., or FMI, (Waltham, Massachusetts), now a wholly owned subsidiary of QinetiQ North America Inc. (McLean, Virginia), began developing an underwater crawling robot designed to operate within the harsh land-water interface of the surf zone. The program, funded through a Small Business Initiative Research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, changed direction over time and eventually led to the development of the TALON explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) family of robots used by militaries, law enforcement officers and first responders worldwide.

The present iteration of the underwater crawling robot, C-TALON, couples TALON's field-proven hardware and software with commercially available underwater sensors—a Teledyne BlueView Technologies Inc. (Seattle, Washington) multibeam imaging sonar, an Aquarian Audio Products (Anacortes, Washington) H1a hydrophone and low-light cameras. This combination enables the robot to gather data in shallow littoral waters where USVs, UUVs and traditional, land-only unmanned ground vehicles cannot operate.

Predecessor Robot
FMI initially set out with the concept that a large number of inexpensive robots could be easily programmed to travel in a specific direction in a swarming fashion to locate and destroy mines emplaced within nearshore, shallow waters.

The robots were designed with a simple inertial compass so that they would know which way to go. They would be dropped overboard from a mine-clearing support boat outside of the shallow-water surf zone and sink to the bottom. They could run right-side up or inverted, so landing orientation was inconsequential.

Once on the bottom, the robots would begin their mission of swarming to the beach, traveling in a random zigzag pattern in search of mines. Multiple robots converging on one target was avoided through an anti-social feature wherein each robot emitted a signal telling other robots in the swarm to go away. Once the robots had found their targets, they would hold fast and wait for the command signal that triggered the detonation of a small explosive charge built into the robot to destroy both it and the mine. The nature of the mission led to this series of robots being named the Lemming.

TALON Development
Within a few years, the successful execution of the Lemming project led FMI to develop similar robotic platforms for a variety of shallow-water underwater missions for the U.S. Army, Navy and Special Operations Command. By the end of the '90s, the robot's maneuverable tracked underpinning was outfitted with an arm featuring a gripper. This new class was called the Tactical Advanced Robot (TAR), a precursor to the TALON.

Although the TAR was a waterproof design like the Lemming, the arm was rated only to submergence depth, and the focus of the robot began to shift from sea to land. While on site in Bosnia supporting the use of the TAR as a land robot for the U.S. military, one of FMI's robotic design engineers frequently referred to the TAR as 'talon' due to the resemblance of its gripper to a bird's claw. To continue this article please click here.

Rob Knochenhauer is a project manager at QinetiQ North America Technology Solutions Group. He is a graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology and holds a degree in electromechanical engineering. He has worked for QinetiQ since 2002 in a variety of roles, including project and engineering management, developmental hardware testing, operation logistics and electromechanical design.

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