Under water with Kubla Khan

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.