What's the difference between a tuna fish and an unmanned underwater vehicle? About a million years of purpose-built evolution. That's why the Department of Homeland Security is hoping to leverage Mother Nature's handiwork into a fleet of ichthyoid-inspired drones to defend our harbors.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the newly-minted Department of Homeland Security took a close look at the state of the United States' borders and did not like what it saw. For the past decade, the DHS has strived to tighten security, especially among the massive volumes of cargo at our major sea ports. There were 6.5 million 20-foot shipping containers moved through the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest in America, in 2010 alone. The Port of Long Beach moved 6.26 million; the Port of New York, 5.29 million.
The DHS' efforts to ensure that contraband stays out (while maintaining the flow of national trade) has proven both costly and time-consuming. But the bilges and tanks of moored oil tankers aren't going to inspect themselves. And that's where the BIOSwimmer comes in.
Originally developed by the Boston Engineering Corporation's Advanced Systems Group in 2009 and based on their GhostSwimmer prototype, the BIOISwimmer was initially funded by the DHS through a $100,000 SBIR contract. It is an unmanned underwater vehicle designed after the tuna and increased underwater mobility. But why model a UUV after the chicken of the sea? "It's called 'biomimetics,'" said David Taylor, program manager for the BIOSwimmer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "We're using nature as a basis for design and engineering a system that works exceedingly well."
By basing the UUV on the body shape of one of nature's most prolific swimmers—tuna fast and agile, especially for their size—it has succeeded where previous, human-invented designs had failed. This will allow the BIOSwimmers to more easily access a ship's flooded structures like its bilges and ballast tanks—even in high-viscosity fluids like crude oil—as well as patrol the open waters of a harbor and inspect submerged portions of piers and docks, using swappable sensor suites, including pencil-beam radar.
"It's designed to support a variety of tactical missions and with its interchangeable sensor payloads and reconfigurable Operator Controls, can be optimized on a per-mission basis" says the Director of ASG, Mike Rufo. Operators can issue general direction to the BIOSwimmer via a laptop data link, however, the battery-powered UUV's onboard computing handles navigation, data processing, and communications duties.
The BIOSwimmer has already cleared its Phase I development cycle, and it entered Phase II development last year. In addition to harbor patrol, Boston Engineering hopes to eventually devlop a commercial version for the oil-shipping industry.