Under the surface of waterways across the globe, small remotely operated submarines are busy checking pipelines, mapping underwater minefields, taking geological and biological samples, scouting locations for communication cables, and searching for sunken vessels.

A group of 20 undergraduate and graduate engineering students from Ben-Gurion University in the Negev saw that existing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have several limitations and they worked with Prof. Hugo Guterman in BGU’s Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics (LAR) to build a better model.

The university’s tech-transfer company is so hyped about HydroCamel II, the resulting prototype, that it has spun out a dedicated company, BGR, to commercialize the 2.35-meter-long AUV. Potential customers include the environmental, research, military, security, oil and gas sectors.

“It’s like a car; you can use it for any application you like,” Guterman tells ISRAEL21c.

HydroCamel II is equipped with an intelligent navigation system whose functions include mission planning, obstacle avoidance and decision-making.

Prof. Hugo Guterman, right, working on the HydroCamel II with his team in the Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics at BGU. (Photo Credit: Courtesy)

Guterman says HydroCamel II is superior to any AUV available in Israel and among the most advanced in the world.

Unhappy with existing AUVs, his lab team designed a small prototype about four years ago, dubbed HydroCamel I, which could go down to a 100-meter underwater depth. Experimenting with that model led to HydroCamel II — a relatively small, cheap, easy-to-operate UAV capable of connecting among several platforms.

“We wanted to build something that could be deployed from smaller ships or from the harbor without a problem. We also wanted something that could be in the water for a long time and take a large number of sensors onboard,” says Guterman.

“The HydroCamel II AUV integrates state-of-the-art technologies including high-level maneuvering in six degrees of freedom and an ability to dive vertically or hover,” he explains. “Until now, these capabilities were limited to remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), which must be tethered by cable to a host ship at all times, while the HydroCamel II is completely autonomous.”

The vehicle, whose body is constructed of the same carbon compound used in airplanes, can be recharged underwater. “We have developed a lot of electronics for the inside of the HydroCamel II,” Guterman says.

Cheaper and better

According to the makers, the HydroCamel II AUV combines full autonomy and maneuverability while enabling quick integration of specialized payloads such as sonars, cameras, sensors and a specimen collection arm.

Guterman says these payloads are more expensive than the vehicle itself.

“HydroCamel II will cost less than a competitive platform but will be much better,” says Guterman. “In the future, when it is in mass production, the price could be even lower.”

BGR has begun cooperation with payload manufacturers and is seeking investment partners.

Tzvika Goldner, CEO of the new commercialization entity headquartered in Beersheva’s Advanced Technologies Park adjacent to the university, notes that the worldwide AUV market is expected to reach $1.2 billion by 2023. Research shows this sector is growing annually by 22% due to increased sea-based security measures and offshore oil and gas production.

“We believe HydroCamel II will expand the AUV customer base and enable us to deploy AUVs in new areas,” said Goldner.

Guterman envisions a large number of the new AUVs deployed in Red and Mediterranean Seas, working 24/7 to gather and transmit a wide variety of underwater data to a wide variety of operators.

He says that no matter where a commercial partner is based, production and R&D for HydroCamel II will remain in the Negev, “where we have the right manpower and knowledge.”