MIT Is Building Anti-Smuggling, Ship-Skimming Robots, So Watch Out Han Solo

The MIT robotics labs provide an endless source of variously amusing, terrifying, and wonderful developments, and today’s is a robot prototype that can scurry across the surface of a ship’s hull, using ultrasound tech to scan for false panels and other secret compartments used by seafaring smugglers. In our version of the future, this means inspections for contraband on space-faring vehicles will involve more than just a serious looking around by a pair of inept stormtroopers, so Han’s Millennium Falcon might need some upgrades.

The research done by MIT was originally developed to help detect possible fissures in nuclear reactor tanks in order to prevent potential disasters, but it’s getting new life as a potential counter-smuggling tool. These have advantages over other types of tech currently used because they could theoretically be camouflaged and deployed quietly, giving smugglers no time to realize the heat is on and get rid of their contraband.

MIT’s detector bots are about the size of a football, and produce no visible wake. The idea is to produce them cheaply, for about $600 a pop as the cost of purchase, and then deploy them in fleets of 20 or so to quickly scour the hull of even larger ships in concert with one another. They have a flat side for getting close to the ship, which is required for ultrasound tech, and they use pumps to channel water through rubber tubes to move through the water and orient themselves.

With a battery life of 40 minutes, they’re more than capable of scanning an entire ship thanks to a fast top speed. New planned versions extend battery life to 100 minutes, too, and will include wirelessly rechargeable batteries, which could make it easier to program them with automated ‘go home and rejuice’ behavior. One other remaining engineering challenge is making sure the bots can maintain a tiny distance from the hull, just big enough to clear hull incrustations but close enough to still be able to get accurate ultrasound results.

One day, all modern ports could have swarms of undersea robots crawling unseen to find and report smuggling operations, and that sounds pretty damn futuristic. I’m sure Captain Mal and the crew of the Serenity could still figure out a way to dupe those droids, but it’d be a lot harder.