Abstract

Fine buoyancy control is essential for underwater robots to maintain neutral buoyancy despite dynamic changes in environmental conditions. This paper introduces a novel buoyancy control system that uses reversible fuel cells (RFC) as a mass-to-volume engine to change the underwater robots' buoyancy. The RFC uses both the water electrolysis process and fuel cell reaction to produce and consume gases in a flexible bladder for volume change. Unlike conventional actuators such as motors and pistons used in buoyancy control, this mechanism is silent, compact, and energy-efficient. A dynamic model that described the dynamics of the RFC enabled buoyancy change is presented. Then, a proportional-derivative (PD) controller is designed to position the device at any depth underwater. A prototype device is built to validate the dynamic model and the performance of the feedback controller. Experimental results demonstrate a fine depth control performance with 4 centermeter accuracy and 90 seconds settling time. The compact buoyancy design is readily integrable with small underwater robots for fine depth change allowing the robots to save actuation energy.

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