The Innovators: International Submarine Engineering’s swimming robots go to places humans can’t

Credit: ISE

An ISE autonomous sub takes care of business

The Port Coquitlam company’s unmanned subs can do their jobs without a remote operator

When does a tool become a worker? That’s the fine line International Submarine Engineering is exploring with its autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), used for performing tasks in environments hostile to human beings, such as under polar ice sheets.

Port Coquitlam–based ISE‘s swimming robots are pre-programmed to do their jobs and even make decisions on their own.

“There are no humans in the loop,” says Luke Alden, mechanical designer for the 46-year-old company. That means they keep doing their work when communications are interrupted, and without the need for oxygen like a manned submersible, they can operate continuously underwater for up to 60 hours. Say there’s an oil spill around a drilling platform; the AUV can chart how far it’s spread.

There are now 16 of ISE‘s Explorer class AUVs in service around the world, working for offshore survey companies, energy firms and universities. The next generation of vehicles will be more compact and energy-efficient, capable of being recharged while still in the water (possibly by autonomous ships) and performing physical tasks in addition to measurement, Alden says.