Battleship Texas plays role in testing contraband-hunting craft
Houston (Texas) Chronicle
HOUSTON — Prowling underwater at a relatively swift 5 knots, the sleek, finned "BIOSwimmer" easily could be mistaken for a tuna. But this 90-pound, 5-foot-long high-tech marvel is no fish.
The product of a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a Massachusetts technology firm, the remotely operated submersible tested this week on the Battleship Texas could become law enforcement's newest weapon against drug smugglers and, potentially, terrorists.
Backers of the craft, which will be put through its paces for potential purchasers at the Port of Houston later this year, say its speed and precision will revolutionize the normally time-consuming task of inspecting the bottoms of incoming ships.
With its sophisticated array of side-scan sonar and camera gear, the BIOSwimmer will be able to detect "anything on a ship's bottom that's not supposed to be there," said Donald Welch, senior project manager with 3U Technologies, a member of the Homeland Security team.
Currently, Welch said, such underwater inspections often are conducted with remote-controlled devices that are tethered to a surface power source. Such machines can operate indefinitely, but they are slow, he said.
But with its own internal power pack and unfettered by a cumbersome power cord, the BIOSwimmer can perform its task much faster.
"If the suspect package isn't drugs — say it's on the bottom of a military ship — authorities possibly wouldn't want to put divers in the water," Welch explained.
"This could be an ideal way of gathering intelligence so divers would know what they were facing," the project manager suggested, calling it "a huge step forward in the realm of safety."
For decades, smugglers have utilized the bottoms of ships to smuggle contraband.
"Drug people are pretty clever," said Rex Sherman, research director for the American Association of Port Authorities. "The concern before was drugs — that's still the big issue — but there's also concern about weapons smuggling and weapons of mass destruction."
At the Port of Houston, the U.S. Coast Guard and Harris County Sheriff's Bureau of Homeland Security share authority. Sheriff's spokesman Thomas Gilliland said his agency uses divers and underwater cameras to inspect incoming ships.
The BIOSwimmer's testing began earlier this week at Battleship Texas and other vessels docked at the Houston port.
On Friday, T-shirted staffers from Boston Engineering, the swimmer's manufacturer, sweated under a blistering sun as they made preparations for the final tests.
As it waited for its morning launch, the fish-shaped submersible rested beneath a white sheet. The sheet's purpose was twofold: to keep the robotuna cool and to shield its design from prying eyes.
Its final mission was more than a trial run. Its unofficial quest was to provide Texas Parks & Wildlife Department officials with a close-up look at the location of a repaired hull leak.
Commissioned in 1914, the Texas has been plagued by leaks and is undergoing $17.5 million in repairs. Ship manager Andy Smith said the most recent leak, which developed on Sept. 4 as workers were reinforcing the ship's engine supports, was quickly patched.
"At first, we were taking on 200 gallons a minute. That ultimately grew to about 600 gallons a minute," Smith said. "But we started the pumps (and) had the divers on speed dial. We put a patch on the outside, and that slowed the leak. We hope the (robotic) swimmer can look at the patch. It definitely provides some benefit for us."
Smith said the historic vessel's participation in the BIOSwimmer's tests is fitting.
"The ability for the Texas to again serve the U.S. is a bit of a bonus," he said. "It's a chance for the ship to be patriotic again."