Northeastern University

Under water with Kubla Khan

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Three chinstrap penguins make Fetch's acquaintance on the rocky shores of Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. Photo by Mark Patterson.

Three chinstrap penguins make Fetch’s acquaintance on the rocky shores of Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. Photo by Mark Patterson.

When professor Mark Patterson told me the story behind his first autonomous underwater robot, I couldn’t help but think of Kubla Khan, the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which the poet envisioned during an opium-induced trance. Of course, it wasn’t milk of the poppy that sent Patterson into an  inspirational reverie, but rather the flu.

Influenza is bad any time, but imagine coming down with the virus while stuck on a marine biology research vessel anchored in the middle of the sea under a beaming-hot summer sun. “It was horrible,” said Patterson. “They isolated me in my cabin because they didn’t want me to bring down the rest of the ship. I was the chief scientist and I was a pariah.”

Luckily this period of fever, chills, and delirium, which kept him isolated and unable to dive only lasted for a couple of days. “It was during the time I was sick — in this feverish crazy state — the robot came to me all at once.”

Just like Kubla Kahn, all 200 lines of which Coleridge saw clearly in his head before committing them to paper, Patterson’s robot was a perfect vision. On a slew of notebook papers stashed inside his cell with him, he sketched out the robot’s entire design.

He realized in an instant that all the technology necessary for an autonomous robot was finally available. It was 1991, the first power PCs were being produced by Apple, GPS could be purchased (for a steep $1000) as a consumer product, boat sonars that once cost tens of thousands of dollars were now available for $500, electronic compasses had just been introduced; “I suddenly realize I could build a robot,” he said.

It was that he hadn’t been thinking about it for a while. But before his sick-induced moment of clarity, it had taken the shape, he said, of a R2D2-like diving buddy.  They’d swim around together like Ariel and Flounder, taking pictures, measuring water quality, and recording observations. ”I’d have my own little electronic pal,” he said.

But what he and collaborator Jim Sias ultimately placed into the salty waters of the Chesapeake Bay four years later (during a snow storm almost as tumultuous as the sick stupor in which conceived) was a far cry from the diving-version of c3po’s best friend. “It ended up looking more like a little marine mammal,” said Patterson. “And I can’t keep up with it, it runs so fast.”

That very robot, which Sias and Patterson litterally built in Sias’ back yard, is now making its way to the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. and it’s still swimming.


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