Roomba Maker Building New Undersea Robots

Undersea exploration may seem a far cry from carpet cleaning. But iRobot, a company best known to consumers for its fully automated Roomba vacuum cleaner, also produces Seaglider, a robot capable of performing underwater missions of up to nine months on a single battery charge, and at a fraction of the cost of a manned research vessel.

"The robot doesn't care if there's a storm outside or if there's a hurricane present or if it's cold," David Heinz, vice president of Maritime Systems at iRobot, told

The secret behind Seaglider's long battery life is that it has no external moving parts. Instead, it glides through the water as it sinks and rises, shifting the weight of its battery to control direction.

"We can physically roll the battery," Heinz explained. "When you roll it in one direction, the glider will want to come back in that direction, causing it to go into a turn."

Capable of reaching depths of up to 3,300 feet, Seaglider can carry multiple sensors to record a variety of measurements, such as temperature, salinity, currents and concentrations of aquatic life.

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    The U.S. Navy uses Seaglider to enhance its ability to operate in different types of ocean conditions. And the robot collects data for universities studying the Earth's climate.

    During last year's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, multiple Seagliders helped researchers track underwater oil plumes.

    Seaglider can be programmed remotely by laptop computer from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. When the robot surfaces, a long antenna on its tail beams the data it has collected to a satellite and receives instructions for its next mission.