“Charlie”, the fish-shaped CIA spy robot that inspired today’s marine exploration
Beneath an innocent appearance, the fish in these images is actually a robot manufactured in the 90s by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA His name is Charlie and he is considered to be the prelude to the unmanned marine vehicles that are currently used to explore the seabed.
The Charlie’s missions are still classified, but we know his story through the CIA museum. Shaped like a catfish, Charlie was able to move through the water, maneuver, dive deep, provide information on his condition, and had sufficient autonomy for the CIA to obtain information underwater.
A pioneer of 24-inch marine robotics
With a length of 61 centimeters, height of 28 centimeters, and width of 18 centimeters, Charlie was the half the size of the usual catfish that normally reach one and a half meters. Despite its smaller measurements, the appearance is quite successful and under water it is difficult to differentiate it from a real fish.
Charlie was the forerunner of unmanned underwater vehicles, a project carried out by the CIA’s Advanced Technologies and Programs division. We know from a presentation video of the CIA itself that the robot was used and that it had a communications system. Nevertheless, its real purpose remains unknown as it is still classified.
Not surprisingly, this fish-shaped robot was used to spy on other nations, in a way equivalent to how the CIA itself used pigeons to spy on the Soviets.
The interest of the US military in collecting information underwater began in the 1950s. Spectrum IEEE recalls the Navy’s experiments with rescue operations and underwater drones. “The nature of the oceans means that we can only go there with robots,” explains Aaron Marburg, an engineer at the University of Washington who worked on one of the first unmanned underwater vehicles.
The expert also points to one of the challenges of this type of project: “nobody wants to write a report to their sponsors saying: ‘sorry, the batteries died and we lost our million dollar robot fish in a whirlpool’.
The SPURV (‘Self-Propelled Underwater Research Vehicle’), one of the Navy’s forerunners, carried out up to 400 underwater missions, but it was not as stealthy as what Charlie would be more than a decade later.
Charlie wasn’t the only one with this name. Several years later, MIT engineers created a robot tuna, also nicknamed Charlie. This same group from MIT continued to work on underwater robots, but the challenge was getting them to navigate precisely.
In 2014, the army presented its project ‘Silent Nemo‘, a gigantic tuna-shaped robot fish that took a step forward in maneuverability. In 2018, MIT released SoFi, an underwater robot with a less camouflaged fish shape but with the ability to be controlled through a Super Nintendo controller. All of them unmanned underwater robots in order to explore the seabed while trying to go unnoticed.
While the most recent projects have finished scientific, the information that Charlie and the CIA could have obtained is still in good possession.