Maybe Optimus Prime isn’t becoming a reality anytime soon, but a futuristic piece of tech that could be distantly related now exists.
Aquanaut, the real-life Transformer that looks like it could fit in with all your action figures, was dreamed up by the former NASA roboticists who founded Houston Mechatronics. What they are actually developing is an unmanned submersible or UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle) that will transform from AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) to ROV (remotely operated vehicle) mode depending on what it needs to accomplish. The two-ton-plus gizmo can fold its robotic arms to stay streamlined as it swims in its AUV form, then unfold them as it morphs into an ROV.
"When Aquanaut moves through the water, we want as little drag as possible to extend the maximum range of what the vehicle can do on battery power," Houston Mechatronics spokesperson Sean Halpin told LiveScience of the robot that is being funded by the Defense Department and the oil industry. "By enclosing the limbs, we're able to operate the vehicle over great distances, up to 200 kilometers [124 miles]."
Speaking of those arms, which are the first (and most challenging) part of the Aquanaut’s anatomy to reach the final phase, they’re already 9 and a half feet folded and can extend to 11 and a half feet. The highly articulated limbs are almost as dexterous as human appendages when it comes to taking on tasks that no human could carry out for hours at the bottom of the ocean.
"We have removed the need for onsite vessels (and people) from subsea work while still maintaining the operator’s situational awareness and the ability to modify missions,” said Houston Mechatronics CEO Nic Radford in an official statement. “Our capability can truly transform industries.”
So how similar is this thing to the actual Transformers? There are some things that will forever stay in sci-fi movies, or at least until we can figure out how to make sure they won’t fall apart when you engage the machine. The transformer won’t be all arms. Houston Mechatronics really wanted to focus on a sleek design that merged form with function, which meant limiting the moving parts to something much more manageable than every mechanical feature on Optimus and the rest of his robo-squad.
"As you can imagine, things that move may break," he said. "Now, if you see the Transformers in the Michael Bay movies they have a million little parts that are moving when they transform. That would not be how a normal robot would do it."
The other thing Aquanaut needs is brains. It has to be autonomous enough to execute tasks on its own when someone is controlling it from miles away with a connection that makes ‘90s dial-up seem superfast by comparison. If anyone can program that brain to be able to make decisions without human intervention and to know when it needs repairs and correct minor issues itself, it’s a couple of ex-NASA scientists.
When Aquanaut is ready, it will undergo its first tank test before officially diving into the market and making science just a little more sci-fi.