The robot was originally designed to detect fissures in nuclear reactor tanks, but the research has found a new purpose as an anti-smuggling device, using ultrasound to scan for false hulls and propeller shafts which smugglers use to conceal their contraband.

MIT Announces Anti-Smuggling Robot Prototype

The anti-smuggling robots are around the same size as a football, which would allow them to be camouflaged. This gives them an advantage over current technology, because they could be deployed quietly before the smugglers have a chance to offload their illicit cargo.

The concealment of the robots is aided by their unique propulsion mechanism, which produces no visible wake. A system of pumps channels water through rubber tubes to propel and direct the robots.

Anti-smuggling robot: Cutting costs

“It’s very expensive for port security to use traditional robots for every small boat coming into the port,” says Sampriti Bhattacharyya, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, who is developing the robot in conjunction with her advisor, Ford Professor of Engineering Harry Asada.

Bhattacharyya hopes to produce the robots for around $600 a piece, a low price made possible by the fact that the main components were produced using a 3-D printer. The scientist claims that the price will allow for fleets of the robots to scan even the larger ships in port quickly and efficiently.

Anti-smuggling robot: Using ultrasound underwater

One side of the robot is flat, enabling the robot to maintain proximity to the hull of the ship, a prerequisite for the effective use of ultrasound. One issue that still needs to be overcome is the fact that many ships have encrustations on their hulls which could prevent effective scanning. Bhattacharyya is working on a system that would create hydrodynamic buffers which would allow for ultrasound scanning without surface contact.

The U.S. Air Force has been following the development of the robots very closely, and special-tactics officer Nathan Betcher sees many potential uses for the technology, such as “the detection of smuggled nuclear, biological, or chemical agents to drug interdiction, discovery of stress fractures in submerged structures and hulls, or even faster processing and routing of maritime traffic.”