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'A SHARK attacked my ROBOT', gasps ex-Sun exec

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A robot from a startup company helmed by a former Sun Microsystems executive was attacked by a shark in the Gulf of Mexico recently, according to reports.

The Wall Street Journal has the story, recounting the tale of machine versus elasmobranch as told to it by Bill Vass, late of Sun. Vass is nowadays CEO of Liquid Robotics, a firm offering the services of its ocean-prowling "Wave Glider" survey robots.

“How often in a start-up do you get to say, ‘a shark just attacked my robot?” asks Vass.

At least once in his case, is the answer. Vass tells the WSJ that one of its Wave Gliders, cruising a hundred miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico on behalf of BP this spring, suddenly reported that all was not well. Summoned back the base, the damaged robot was found to have bite marks in it.

“It was attacked by a shark with about a 12 to 14-inch size bite from the shape of the tooth marks on the gliders fins,” says Vass.

The Wave Gliders feature a small-table-sized surface float attached to a grid of vanes below the surface, not dissimilar in design to the assemblies used to spread fishing nets or minesweeping gear - but designed with articulated vanes so as to act in the same direction when pulled up and down through the water.

As waves lift and drop the float, the vanes are forced up and down, generating forward thrust which propels the robot along without the need for any other power source. Electricity generated by solar panels on the float is used for communications, payload and guidance by satellite navigation.

A Wave Glider, like certain other types of unmanned watercraft, can cover lengthy distances at sea effectively unsupervised and at low cost compared to normal mobile seagoing platforms, transmitting data back to base all the while. In tests, the cunning robots have travelled from Hawaii to San Diego.

Admittedly it now turns out that they can be taken off task by shark attacks - the glider's sensor payload was apparently knocked out of whack by the hungry shark earlier this year, hence the need for a return to base - but Vass says this is rare. Liquid Robotics has suffered only the one nibble incident so far, he says, in 150,000 miles of glider operations. ®

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