US has one of the most powerful navies in the world. Yet their advanced ships find it difficult to locate submarines designed by drug traffickers. According to the Boston University, Narco-subs, as they are called, are “exceptionally good at their job” and can smuggle several thousand pounds of cocaine, heroin and other banned drugs into the country. The subs often have multiple crew members and operate with the help of GPS systems. Greg McDaniel, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the College of Engineering (Boston University), and his team consisting of graduate and undergrad researchers are currently developing a new type of seafaring robots that can patrol large areas and can work together to detect underwater threats.
Speaking to BU Today, McDaniel said “There may be hundreds more of these subs out there, but, statistically, only a few of them will be caught.”
Since the 1990s, only 60 narcosubs have been captured. One such haul in 2016, involved a craft carrying 12,800 pounds of cocaine worth $193 million.
Currently, the American drug enforcement team have a few techniques to detect narco-subs but they are far from efficient. One of them involves the use of towed sonar arrays – microphones attached to cables and dragged behind ships. Apart from that, robots called Bluefins can go underwater and listen for targets. Both systems have limitations. They can detect only within a few miles. The Bluefins cannot communicate with the operators once underwater.
McDaniel’s solution involves pint-sized drones floating on water. These drones can independently scout areas in open oceans and listen in for suspicious sounds. If a drone picks up something suspicious, it alerts other robots in the area which zone in on the location to investigate further. The drones could help in detecting narco-subs and other underwater threats more effectively, which is why the US Navy finds it pretty attractive.
One of the most interesting aspects of the drones is that they are built from off-the-shelf parts and are very low tech. The hull consists of foam boogie boards and a waterproof plastic box. The propulsion systems use “sump pumps” and a readily available hydrophone, underwater microphone and a circuit board. Each robot costs less than $1,000 – that’s less than the cost iPhone X.
But McDaniel insists that the hardware is not his USP. He believes the real work is programming the robots to detect the narco-subs. The software should be able to identify narco-subs from larger ships. Also the trick in making the bots work as a team is to keep them on the surface and connected to Wi-Fi signals, allowing them to patrol large areas.