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MIT boffins invent robot clam-grapnel

Tech has important mole-cruiser implications, too

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MIT boffins are pleased to annouce that they have at last perfected a long-sought-after technology - that of the robot clam. It seems that metal shellfish able to dig themselves into the seabed will make excellent anchors for somewhat larger droid submarines.

Amos Winter and colleagues at MIT unveiled their mechanical bivalve designs at a boffinry meeting in Minneapolis at the weekend.

"The best anchoring technology out there is an order or magnitude worse than the clam - most are two or three orders worse," says roboclam expert Professor Annette Hosoi.

Winter, Hosoi and fellow clamdroid enthusiast Alexander Slocum modelled their mooring machine on the remarkable Ensis directus, or Atlantic razor clam. These active little fellows can dig themselves the best part of a metre down into sand or mud in little more than a minute, using a cunning process whereby they convert the material immediately around them into "fluid" quicksand-esque stuff which is easier to move through.

The Winter, Hosoi and Slocum mecha-mollusc is apparently undergoing sea trials now amid the saltwater mudflats off Cape Cod. It uses air from a scuba tank for power, and is controlled by wire from the surface. It is "small, lightweight, and does not use a lot of energy," according to Hosoi.

Regular boats and ships already have acceptable anchors, but the kit doesn't scale down much beyond boat anchor size. The MIT clam-dig tech is intended at the moment for anchoring such things as small battery robo-subs used in oceanic science. It might also find a home with the US military's plans for a riverbottom-crawling, mud-burrowing reconnaissance robot.

That's all very well, of course. But the tech would also seem to have important implications in another neglected area of human achievement: that of the mole-cruiser. Along with flying cars, robotic or brainchipped-monkey butlers, rayguns, spaceships that can actually go somewhere without having to jettison most of themselves etc etc - we have been waiting for our underground mole-ships for quite some time. And all we are given in place of these things is a gradually easier and easier ability to update personal web pages - to the point where even showbiz personalities can now do so.

It's nice to see someone working on proper technology for once. ®

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