Robots May Be Key to Future Deepsea Mining
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on September 18, 2020 |
N.Y.-based Pliant Energy Systems is developing robots to explore metals found in the oceans.

Humans may have explored only 5 percent of the oceans’ mysteries in the world, but that small percent has uncovered much more than just interesting ecosystems and life. Areas of the seafloor are full of highly sought-after metals, including nickel, copper, cobalt and zinc. Companies like Pliant Energy Systems (PES) are developing robotics to help with further exploration and mining of these elements, which are needed for solar panels, smartphones and electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

While robotic exploration of ocean floors is not new, innovators have a massive challenge to overcome.

“On the one hand, we need these metals to electrify and decarbonize. On the other hand, people worry we’re going to destroy deep ocean ecosystems that we know very little about,” said Pietro Filardo, PES founder and CEO.

His company is focused on providing a balanced solution. It has already developed a prototype, Velox, which is designed for navigating the shallow areas of the ocean where waves hit land, called the surf zone. Velox features an onboard CPU that powers the robot’s flexible fins. Instead of relying on thrusters, which are powerful and can disturb fragile ecosystems, the robot’s undulating fins produce low-velocity movements and use the water’s surface to maneuver. This also results in lower battery usage, minimizing the need for recharging.

Velox, developed by Pliant Energy Systems, is a gentler alternative to oceanic floor exploration. It moves via undulating fins instead of a thruster, helping keep fragile ecosystems intact. (Image courtesy of Pliant Energy Systems.)
Velox, developed by Pliant Energy Systems, is a gentler alternative to oceanic floor exploration. It moves via undulating fins instead of a thruster, helping keep fragile ecosystems intact. (Image courtesy of Pliant Energy Systems.)

Similar in appearance to a stingray, the stealthy robot’s design makes it resistant to getting tangled with debris or plants. It also has amphibious capabilities and can navigate over sand, snow, ice and other solid substrates. PES is continuing its work on Velox to incorporate grippers and algorithms to make the robot an autonomous tool for gathering polymetallic nodules of ores.

The company is also working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a new larger prototype, the C-Ray. It would be a maneuverable robot that moves similarly to a sea otter, by twisting and rolling. Equipped with metal detectors, the C-Ray is being designed for use by the U.S. Navy, which is sponsoring the research, for surf zone surveillance. The ultimate goal is to develop algorithms that allow for multiple autonomous C-Rays to communicate with one another.

A conceptual illustration of C-Ray robots collecting deep sea polymetallic nodules. (Image courtesy of Pliant Energy Systems.)
A conceptual illustration of C-Ray robots collecting deep sea polymetallic nodules. (Image courtesy of Pliant Energy Systems.)

PES and its collaborators believe the C-Ray will also be a useful tool for mining. Once equipped with grippers and a “hive” mentality, hundreds of these robots could be dispatched for collecting nodules and placed in cages that float to the surface. They could also be programmed to replace nodules with other stones to ensure the regrowth of sea life.

For now, PES and other scientists are still in the research phase when it comes to mining. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which consists of global members, is set to release an updated Mining Code in October. It will include technical and environmental standards, as well as information about where and when mining can take place.


Interested in more robotic innovations? Check out Soft Humanoid Hands Help Robots Grasp Fragile Objects and Researchers Take Inspiration from Origami to Build Flexible Microbots.

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