Local News

Apr 8, 2014 3:55 PM by Sara Donchey

Locally-Developed Underwater Drone Technology Could Help Searches Like MH370

CORPUS CHRISTI -- The hunt for missing Malaysia Flight MH370 is one of the most difficult searches in aviation history.

Now that crews have picked up pinging in the Southern Indian Ocean, they're turning to drones to assist in the search.

Michael Toscano is the President and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International; he says drones are the right fit for a challenge of this magnitude.

"Whether it's air, ground, or maritime, an unmanned system does things that human beings can't," Toscano said. "...the dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs. This is one that's very difficult and very dangerous."

Though the search is thousands of miles from home, the technology behind these underwater robots is in our own backyard.

Dr. Dugan Um at Texas A&M Corpus Christi studies and builds these machines in his lab.

"The total operation is very similar to what a human does, but the robot can have more flexibility," Um said.

Flexibility is important for things like navigating miles beneath the ocean's surface and dealing with poor visibility and intense turbulence.

"We are not certain about the exact location of the black box," Um said. "It is very critical for us to try to cover as much as we can."

That's a problem that could be solved by sensor networking--a technology being developed in Um's own lab.

It allows multiple drones to communicate with each other and back to the operator, which could widen a search like the one for the missing jetliner.

The lab's other focus is on underwater gliding systems--drones that are powered by the water itself, allowing them to stay under for up to a year.

"Underwater glider technology should be the enabling technology that allows us to actually extend the search operation."

Though the focus nowadays seems to be drones in the sky, Dr. Um feels that soon, the focus on drones will shift to the seas.

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