Dec 12, 2013

Swimming Robot Tests Port Security in Houston Channel

BIOSwimmer, shown in Port of Houston waters, is a device in the shape of a bluefin tuna that scans the undersides of ships for suspicious packages and contraband. Photo courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

BIOSwimmer, shown in Port of Houston waters, is a device in the shape of a bluefin tuna that scans the undersides of ships for suspicious packages and contraband. Photo courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

By Alex Dropkin
For Reporting Texas and the Austin American-Statesman

The future of Texas port security might rest partly in the hands — or the fins — of a 90-pound, 5-foot robotic bluefin tuna.

BIOSwimmer, an unmanned underwater vehicle, is designed to discreetly survey the hulls of ships for illegal drugs and suspicious objects. The robotic fish, funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant, is being field-tested in the Port of Houston. It could be ready for operation in a number of U.S. ports in three to six months, according to DHS.

“We’re always looking at ways things could be brought into the United States that are not necessarily legal,” said David Taylor, a science and technology project manager at the agency. “These are smart people that move this stuff … and we’re looking at different solutions.”

BIOSwimmer completed its first field tests at the Battleship Texas in a partnership between the DHS and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages the ship, in September. The century-old, retired warship is permanently anchored at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site in LaPorte, on the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel.

According to Don Welch, senior manager for 3U Technologies, the Conroe company contracted to conduct the tests, the trials went well and brought to the surface no major issues that would “cause us to rewrite control software or redesign elements of it.”

The tests over several days were aimed at refining the robot’s controls as well as monitoring the capabilities of BIOSwimmer’s camera and side-scan sonar, which would be used to survey ship hulls for contraband. BIOSwimmer identified packages planted along the 573-foot ship’s hull during the testing.

Despite that success, “I cannot tell you that the system will even end up in the field in a high quantity,” Welch said. Customer decisions on use of the robot are expected after more testing is completed by the end of the year, he said.

Though BIOSwimmer can operate autonomously, in most cases an operator with a joystick will control it. The robot is tethered to a buoy that receives radio waves from the operator’s computer. The operator can be on the dock, in a building along the port or on a floating vessel.

The battery-powered fish consumes 1.5 to 2.25 kilowatts per hour of energy for propulsion and its electrical systems, and can execute a 300-foot dive.

“The BIOSwimmer provides the Department of Homeland Security with the ability to look at these ships without being real intrusive, possibly even without the ship knowing it,” said Andy Smith, Battleship Texas manager.

Project manager Taylor said surveying ships with a dive team is far more problematic than the BIOSwimmer will be.

“Look at the United States, look at how many waterways we have, ports of entry we have … and to provide security and protection to all those areas is a daunting task,” Taylor said.

What makes the robot unique and desirable are its fishlike properties: a flexible body and fins for unmatched maneuverability.

“Inspiration for us was really to take what’s pragmatic from an engineering standpoint, based on what we can learn from biology, and apply it to improving manmade underwater vehicles,” said Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering Corp.’s advanced systems group, which designed BIOSwimmer. “That’s really why it’s a fish, and the reason that the (tuna) was chosen is because it’s a good intersection of maneuverability and speed and efficiency in terms of fish.”

Every year, the Port of Houston handles more than 200 million tons of cargo carried by more than 8,000 vessels and 200,000 barges, according to the Port of Houston Authority. It is one of the world’s busiest ports and leads the nation in a number of shipping statistics, including total import and export tonnage.

Welch said Houston was chosen as the testing site partly because that port has murkier water than many other ports.

“If we’re able to operate in the Port of Houston, we can certainly operate in Miami or California or other ports,” he said.

BIOSwimmer may one day look for underwater evidence of terrorist activity, search for accident victims or conduct long-range surveillance, but for now its job will be to sniff out drugs.

“There certainly have been drugs that have been smuggled in underwater in the past, and that’s primarily the driver right now,” Welch said.

But Marcus Woodring, the Port of Houston Authority’s security director, said that in his experience, packages attached to ship hulls have been a rarity.

“I can’t really remember the last drug seizure we had on a ship coming into one of our docks, and I’ve been here two years,” he said. The port authority owns or operates eight facilities along the Port of Houston.

BIOSwimmer was designed and developed by Boston Engineering through a DHS small-business grant of $99,985 in 2009, one of 70 awarded that year. A $1.2 million Phase 2 grant was given to the project in 2010. DHS owns no future rights to the BIOSwimmer.

Taylor said that while it is too early to put a price tag on a final model, it would be less than the development costs for a prototype.

The Area Maritime Security Committee, a partnership among the Coast Guard and public and private entities, oversees Houston’s port security. If purchased by the Coast Guard or another large agency, Woodring said, BIOSwimmer could be one more tool in managing a complex assignment.

A purchasing decision would involve several factors, he said: “How often would I use the robofish, and how much does it cost, and do I really need one myself?”

For the time being, BIOSwimmer is back in Boston, undergoing minor adjustments after the initial field-testing. Demonstrations for potential customers, such as Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard, are expected toward the end of the year. The Port of Houston will host the tests.

After those tests, the potential customers will “make a decision as to where, how, and how many they’re going to use deployed to the field,” Welch said.