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Robotic lake lander could explore bodies of water on other planets

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March 21, 2012

TEX II is a robotic lake lander, designed for autonomously exploring bodies of water on ot...

TEX II is a robotic lake lander, designed for autonomously exploring bodies of water on other planets (Photo: Wolfgang Fink/ECE/University of Arizona College of Engineering)

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Ask someone to picture a robotic roving vehicle, and chances are they’ll think of something with wheels, like the Mars Rover. If an alien civilization were sending a craft to explore Earth, however, they might be better off using a boat – after all, the majority of our planet’s surface is covered with water. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, similarly has a pretty wet surface, as it contains lakes of liquid hydrocarbon. Wolfgang Fink, an engineer with the University of Arizona, has designed an aquatic rover for exploring those lakes.

Named the Tucson Explorer II, or TEX II, the catamaran-style "lake lander" has two Styrofoam hulls, each six feet (1.8 meters) long. Mounted on top of them is a raised deck, that can carry up to 150 pounds (68 kg) of computers, batteries and sensors. Those sensors presently include cameras, and sonar that can penetrate the water to a depth of 328 feet (100 meters), but a host of others could be added.

Two above-water electrically-driven propellers are located at the back of TEX II, each one of which can independently spin its blades in either direction. This allows the robot to move forward or backward, turn to either side, or pivot on the spot – something that couldn’t be done using a single source of propulsion. Because the propellers are located far apart from one another, maximum torque can be applied when using them to turn the craft.

In its current form, TEX II weighs 100 pounds (45 kg). Its top speed could be determined by the number of motors used, although its sonar reportedly works best at speeds no higher than 5 knots.

Wolfgang Fink (right) and his grad student Alex Jacobs prepare to launch TEX II for a seri...
Wolfgang Fink (right) and his grad student Alex Jacobs prepare to launch TEX II for a series of tests on a lake (Photo: Wolfgang Fink/ECE/University of Arizona College of Engineering)

Previously, Fink had designed a land-based planetary rover. Both vehicles are part of his NASA award-winning concept of a complete system, in which a satellite would scan the surface of a planet, then send a blimp in that planet’s atmosphere to areas of interest. That blimp, in turn, would coordinate the movements of land and water rovers on the planet’s surface, to investigate those areas and collect samples. All of the machines involved would be autonomous, deciding for themselves what to do, and how to go about doing it.

Given that TEX II may not be traveling to Titan anytime soon, however, Fink believes that it should be useful for exploring our own planet. He suggests that it could be used for duties including harbor surveillance, hazardous cleanup operations, search and rescue efforts, and environmental research. Although it’s not fully autonomous – yet – it can be remotely controlled from anywhere in the world via the internet.

TEX II can be seen in action in the video below.

Source: University of Arizona via Dvice

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
3 Comments

However this craft performs on a pond on Earth there is absolutely no comparison with how that same craft would perform in the low gravity and dense, cold atmosphere on Titan.

You can't correctly test the aerodynamics here on earth. The craft would probably have too much lift on titan and become totally unstable when it leaves the liquid surface that it was designed to travel on.

Foxy1968
21st March, 2012 @ 06:50 pm PDT

That prototype looks awfully susceptible to wind. A self righting mono hull with ballast tanks would seem more practical to me.

If your going to operate on "water" wouldn't a sail provide more efficient propulsion. And you could use paddle wheels to generate electricity and to provide emergency propulsion.

Slowburn
22nd March, 2012 @ 11:46 am PDT

NASA award winning?.....This is the design they come up with?

This style of thing would not be stable in so many different conditions away from a pond.

For all the funds they receive I'm sure they could do better.

Anthony N Di Wood
1st April, 2012 @ 01:55 pm PDT
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