As iRobot and University of Washington Team Up, Robotic-Sub Competition Heats Up

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with all manner of sensors to record temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, depth, and other critical ocean variables. The military is interested because, among other things, such readings can inform sonar measurements. They can also provide important clues about ocean currents, weather patterns, and climate change. That said, Seagliders probably won’t become the next big consumer gadget, though they do come in different colors (the U.S. Navy likes yellow, while universities tend to go for pink or orange).

So, what sort of splash is the news making in the New England robotics community? The firms I’ve talked to are playing it up as a good thing. The presence of several local AUV companies is “fostering healthy competition both for platform developers and component suppliers,” says David Kelly, CEO of Bluefin Robotics, which was spun out of MIT in 1997. “IRobot has a distinguished history in the robotics field overall. Their recent announcement further accentuates this strong, established base of Massachusetts companies leading the robotics industry.”

For iRobot, the UW deal represents a chance to hit the ground running (or hit the seas swimming) in terms of AUVs. Greiner says that when she helped start iRobot in 1991, commercial ground robots didn’t really exist. But with underwater robots, iRobot will address an established market—as well as a fair bit of competition. As for the technology, “I first read about [Seagliders] in the 1990s, and they were experimental,” says Greiner. “The difference now is it’s ready for prime time.”

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • Brian

    What propels it (no moving external parts)?

  • @Brian: I was wondering the same thing. I found this explanation on the Web: “A Seaglider’s propulsion system may not be immediately discernible, but it is effective. It propels itself through varying its buoyancy by pumping compressible oil between high- and low-pressure chambers that together act just like a swim bladder in a fish. Pitch and roll control come courtesy of the battery pack that can be slid back and forth and swung from side to side.” See

  • Right, it changes its center of gravity relative to its center of buoyancy, by changing its density and weight distribution. Basically it’s meant for diving, while the shape of its wings allows it to glide horizontally.