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The Swiss drone being used for critical underwater missions

  • By The Swiss Times
  • 11 July 2023
The world’s first autonomous underwater vehicle that has been specially developed to use in challenging and dangerous environments began at a Zurich university.
The Swiss drone being used for critical underwater missions
The drone prototype is named “Proteus” (Credit: SwissTech).

The recent submarine accident near the “Titanic” wreck in the Atlantic has tragically shown how complicated rescue operations under water can be, with the great depth making rescue divers’ work impossible.

But human rescuers can also run into difficulties in shallow waters, where insufficient visibility or strong currents may hamper their efforts.

A spin-off of ETH Zurich has developed an underwater drone for just such operations. Tethys Robotics’ autonomous underwater vehicle is designed for hostile environments like fast-flowing rivers, channels or tidal waters. The diving robot can deal with depths of up to 600 meters, allowing it to reach the bottom of any Swiss body of water.

Underwater searches without any direct visual contact

As explained on ETH Zurich’s news page, the diving robot has acoustic sensors, cameras and underwater GPS on board, which it uses to autonomously search large areas underwater and quickly find objects and people. Once the robot has located its target, a human operator takes over navigation and – using an optimized virtual reality headset – steers it to the destination.

Equipped with grippers, the underwater drone can carry up to 40 kilograms back to the surface. Its use relieves the burden on emergency aid workers, who can then concentrate on other key tasks and realize safe and efficient search and rescue operations.

Named Proteus, the prototype conducts underwater searches without any direct visual contact thanks to AI-based environmental perception, real-time topography mapping and pinpoint accuracy in locating the searched object down to the centimeter. This allows Proteus to autonomously verify its position even in turbulent conditions and zero visibility, which in turn facilitates intuitive robotic operations for all users.

Special operation to search for ammunition underwater

As announced in a press release, the Swiss Armed Forces started using the innovative robot in 2022 to search for ammunition underwater. Collaboration started back in 2019 with Proteus’ predecessor. During the course of about two years, the robot underwent a complete overhaul and was deployed and evaluated in practical scenarios together with the divers and other Swiss Armed Forces users.

This article was reprinted with permission from SwissTech.

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