THE FIRST unmanned submarine designed specifically for civilian research in ocean science was launched off the shores of Britain last week. Autosub1, developed at the Southampton Oceanography Centre, will explore those parts of the oceans beyond the reach of instruments lowered into the sea.
Running on the type of lead-acid batteries that power an electric car and travelling at about 6.5 km per hour for up to 70 km, Autosub1 will also act as an underwater laboratory technician, taking ocean measurements such as depth, temperature and salinity.
Gwyn Griffiths, who heads the project, said: "Scientists using Autosub1 will be able to carry on with their research on floating laboratory ships while the underwater vessel carries out routine measurements. It will cut down on costly ship time."
The torpedo-shaped submarine, which can be lowered into the ocean from a ship or launched from the shore, navigates by following pre-programmed directions at given speeds. Any errors that accumulate under water are corrected by the vessel when it breaks the surface and takes automatic readings from satellites.
One of the vessel's limitations is its inability to receive modified instructions during a mission. But Dr Griffiths said this shortcoming will soon be rectified.
"There is not a great deal of artificial intelligence in the vehicle yet, but this is an ongoing and very long-term research programme and in three to five years we will build vehicles that can plan paths according to what they find in the ocean," he said.
Since the start of the Autosub project in 1988, about Pounds 5 million has been spent perfecting the idea. Dr Griffiths predicts that replica vehicles will cost about Pounds 500,000 each, and says the centre is negotiating with a British manufacturer.