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UI develops underwater robots

MOSCOW, Idaho — Researchers at the University of Idaho are teaching underwater robots to speak, learn and make decisions on their own.

The research, Dean Edwards said, isn't just a flight of science-fiction fancy. Instead, it could eventually make it safer for the military to search out underwater mines in harbors.

The military and other organizations already use "autonomous underwater vehicles," but the work of Edwards and other researchers at Idaho suggests the possibility of teams of cooperating robots hunting for mines. The robots can even use experience to improve performance over time. Eventually, the technology will be given to the U.S. Navy.

The research is partly funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through the school's Center for Intelligent Systems Research. The system could also be applied to other industries, with the robots used for water quality testing or pipeline inspections.

When used for mine sweeping, Edwards said, the robots could do the entire job without putting any humans in harm's way.

"Once they're down there, they're on their own," Edwards said.

The researchers have already tested one submarine. This spring, they'll test five of the robots together at the Navy's research facility at Bayview on Lake Pend Oreille.

The robots used complex algorithms and linguistics to create their language, expressed in sound waves underwater. They use microprocessors communicating over a network, much like the way different computers in an office communicate with each other, said associate professor Richard Wall.

A large team of researchers and students are working on the project with Edwards and Wall, including engineers Tom Bean and Geoff Beidler and graduate students Troy Cuff of Post Falls, Douglas Welling of Hayden Lake and Michael Santora of Spokane.

Edwards has been working on autonomous vehicles for about a decade. He's also developing a small, four-wheel rover-style vehicle for the Defense Department, as well as a small bulldozer, an underwater "crawler" and another vehicle that could be used for timber skidding and clearing brush.