U-CAT robotic sea turtle set to explore shipwrecks


November 26, 2013

Tallinn University of Technology researchers Asko Ristolainen and Taavi Salumäe watch the U-CAT robot in an aquarium

Tallinn University of Technology researchers Asko Ristolainen and Taavi Salumäe watch the U-CAT robot in an aquarium

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When was the last time you heard about a sea turtle getting stuck in a shipwreck? Never, that's when. Although that's partly because stuck turtles rarely make the news, it's also due to the fact that they're relatively small and highly maneuverable. With that in mind, the European Union-funded ARROWS project has created U-CAT – a prototype robotic sunken-ship-exploring sea turtle.

Just like a real turtle, U-CAT has four independently-driven flippers that allow it to move up and down, forward and backward, and to pivot on the spot. Propellers would let it do those same things, although they'd also churn up much more visibility-limiting silt in the process.

U-CAT is autonomous, so it doesn't require a control cable that could get snagged or tangled. It also has an onboard video camera, which records video that can later be used to visually map out the inside of the shipwreck.

Plans call for the technology to be tested at underwater archeological sites in the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. The idea is that U-CATs could ultimately be used in conjunction with other underwater robots that are too large to enter wrecks, and too expensive to risk losing within them.

Once they get into regular service, U-CATs might not be the only robotic turtles in the sea. Scientists from the ETH Zurich research group are developing a roboturtle of their own, known as naro-tartaruga.

The U-CAT prototype can be seen in action in the video below. If you're interested in seeing it first-hand, its public premier will be taking place this weekend at the London Science Museum's Robot Safari exhibit.

Sources: Tallinn University of Technology, ARROWS Project

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

Very cool. How far down can it go?


This article made me laugh right off. Asking how many sea turtles get stuck in shipwrecks is a bit like asking how many dolphins push shipwrecked sailers away from land. How would anyone ever know? Oh, OK, I know it wasn't intended as a serious question. But it is fun to think about.


Interesting .. but there is fishing sting and grass,how does it deal with these obstacles.

Jay Finke

Reminds me of the BioSwimmer™, a robotic tuna developed with funding from the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.

[See our article on the BIOSwimmer at - Ed.]

Paul Stregevsky

Agree with Vegas George about the opening statement about Turtle's stuck in shipwrecks, completely stupid funny. Funny here in Australia, we do not get Turtle traffic reports through out the day either.

Sadly no mention of it's depth rating and would also be interested in it's buoyancy control if it has any. Where is some video footage from the Turtle's camera? It didn't look as if it could hold a steady video shot flipping and flapping all over the place. A lot of the video would be at only a glance, not impossible, but not so great if you wish to closely study an items condition, position, etc. If it had both small propellers and the fins controlled off the same arms, plus a way to control buoyancy (like a sub) you could use the fins for most situations and the props to hold a steady position where low silting allows it.


well, I am a diver, and diving in colder waters. Therefore haven't seen turtles that much but plenty of seals caught and dead in a net.

I really like the concept and wish all the best, but I suspect the big challenge is in autonomous navigation. The hazards in a wreck- fishing nets, bad visibility, sometimes strong currents, silt are a challenge even to human divers. Understanding the broken form of a shipwreck, recognizing how it relates to the ship when it was new ("oh, this must be the remains of the main deck!"), deciding where to enter. Even worse getting inside- the ship is broken down, full of silt and trash, may be tilted or upside down, with holes in the hull..

But taking it step by step, and solving little tasks first (like "go down with the diver, penetrate hull 10m and return") .. it can take you forward. Just suggest to have some practitioneers in the team..

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