Exciting news out of MIT: underwater robots just got smarter. Inspired by Star Trek's Enterprise, the folks at MIT have developed a new program that gives AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) greater decision-making capabilities.

The new program, aptly named Enterprise, endows submersibles with "cognitive capabilities" that will greatly enhance the robots' performance, making them less reliant on humans above the surface.

Scientists tried out their new technology in the waters off the western coast of Australia back in March, using an autonomous underwater glider as their test vehicle. After priming it with a series of higher-level commands, the glider was released and observed over a three-week period.

And it passed with flying colors. Armed with the new technology, the glider was able to adapt its mission plan on the fly, avoiding collisions with other AUVs, restructuring its priorities as conditions changed, and adapting its mission plan based on the actions of other vehicles in the area.  

"We wanted to show that these vehicles could plan their own missions, and execute, adapt, and re-plan them alone, without human support," says Brian Williams, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and principal developer of the mission-planning system. "With this system, we were showing we could safely zigzag all the way around the reef, like an obstacle course."

Williams envisioned a hierarchical decision-making system, like that used on the fictional Starship Enterprise. The program would function on several levels. Higher-level decisions, like where and when to explore, would be made by a "captain." The "navigator" would plan out the route for the mission, while the "engineer" component would diagnose and repair problems autonomously.

"We can give the system choices, like, 'Go to either this or that science location and map it out,' or 'Communicate via an acoustic modem, or a satellite link,'" Williams says. "What the system does is, it makes those choices, but makes sure it satisfies all the timing constraints and doesn't collide with anything along the way. So it has the ability to adapt to its environment."

And what might future applications entail for such smart robots? AUVs are already used extensively for underwater monitoring and diagnoses. They collect information concerning currents, temperature, and conditions affected by storms. They test water quality, collect data from deep water, and were even used to gauge the extent of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Gliders are revolutionizing how scientists observe our oceans.

And MIT has taken the technology one step further.

"If you look at the ocean right now, we can use Earth-orbiting satellites, but they don't penetrate much below the surface," Williams says. "You could send sea vessels which send one autonomous vehicle, but that doesn't show you a lot. This technology can offer a whole new way to observe the ocean, which is exciting."