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Inspired by book on Elon Musk, Mumbai engineers build robot to explore the oceans

Amoolya Rajappa
16th Jan 2018
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Parth Thakkar and his team have invented an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) that promises to benefit industries such as military and defence, oil and gas, and helps in conducting geo-environmental surveys.

For 22-year-old Parth Thakkar, it was reading Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Inventing the Future that served as a ‘fascinating jerk’ to start a new innovation. While reading the book, the young mechanical engineer realised how Elon Musk was thinking about securing the future of next generations by providing a safe abode on Mars.

“However, no one can ever transport every last person on Earth to Mars. So if things go downhill for Earth, what plans do we have for people who stay here?”

And, soon, this mind-boggling question also led Parth to think of an intriguing idea that helps in better exploration of the existing resources on Earth.

I believe the shortage of resources due to explosion in population can be tackled if we start exploring and using resources from our oceans. Thus, the first step in my big journey is to make something affordable for exploring oceans. This is how I came up with the idea of making an underwater vehicle, says Parth.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) is a type of an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) that can work under deep sea conditions that are beyond the reach of professional divers. “Underwater robots are built for greater depths, longer mission periods and are equipped with operational capabilities in harsh environments (eg. polar expeditions),” explains Parth.

So what makes Parth’s AUV different from other existing models?

We have always focused on making a robust robot that can be tested in open water with currents, rather than build something suitable only for the swimming pools. I believe this is our USP, opines Parth, who also co-founded The Marine Robotics Team in K. J. Somaiya College of Engineering in July 2017, just after he had graduated.

Guided by Dr. NR Gilke and Becky Thomas, Parth and his team’s AUV project were further supported by by K. J. Somaiya College of Engineering. Working on principles and skillsets from various disciplines of engineering, like mechanical, electronics and computer science, the AUV has already received a welcoming response in various exhibitions and conferences.

Recalling his latest experiences of pitching the AVU idea at various forums, Parth says, “We have attended the INMEX exhibition at BEC and Maritime Nation India conference (MNI). We got an overwhelming response and encouragement to continue our work in underwater robotics.”

Parth and his eight-member team also visited the National Institute of Oceanography on the invitation of Pramod Maurya who was in the group of scientists who built India's first Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (MAYA).

We have plans to use our AUV for coral reef monitoring and survey of underwater cultural heritage sites for now, says Parth.

However, the AUV also has multiple applications in military and defence, oil and gas industries, geo-environmental surveys etc.

In military and defence, the AUV can aid in operations like mine countermeasures, which involve locating and destroying of naval mines and reconnaissance mission that includes obtaining information by visual observation or other detection methods, about the activities and resources of an enemy or potential enemy, or about the meteorologic, hydrographic, or geographic characteristics of a particular area.

Moreover, in the oil and gas industries, the AUV can aid in many functions such as inspecting the sand bearing capacity of sea bed to choose site for construction of rigs and jetties; inspecting the underwater infrastructure for repair and maintenance; and locating oil plumes in sea bed by using chemical tracing.

Elaborating on the crucial role of AUV in conducting geo-environmental surveys, Parth says, "Under ice realm remains virtually unknown because of scientific difficulties- while ice strengthened research vessels can penetrate the ice they also disrupt the environment of interest in doing so. In the context, the AUV can aid in bathymetry of an area with cold water coral reefs".

Lastly, the AUV can also be used in the entertainment and exploration sector where it can record videos of divers and explore unknown water bodies such as dams, lakes, ponds etc.

Having completed the final design in December 2017, Parth and his team also displayed the prototype of their AUV model at the recently concluded Makers 2018, organised by Somaiya Riidl at Somaiya Vidyavihar, Mumbai from January 11-13.

Ask him about the kind expectations he had from the Makers Mela, and Parth says,

We were looking to introduce this new technology to enthusiastic makers in order to capture their imagination about the deep sea world, and we hope this stirs a passion in them to explore the 'blue planet'.

We are also looking for investors as we are a first-year team and we do not want to compromise on performance due to financial reasons,” adds Parth, who is hopeful of getting the kind of corporate support that will further propel his innovation.

Currently, Parth is also looking forward to registering his newly founded startup ISKRA, which focuses on Inspection, Repair and Maintenance (IRM) of ship hulls. Founded in June 2017, Parth’s startup is incubated by RiiDL. “My team and I will continue to build new underwater robots in the future too,” he says.

When questioned what inspires him to innovate more, Parth concludes, by saying,

I believe that oceans are the key to life on planet Earth and probably elsewhere in this universe, thus my quest is to explore the gigantic and fantastic oceans as much as I can, and this keeps me continuously motivated.
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