‘Charlie’, the CIA fish-shaped spy robot that inspired today’s marine exploration

In innocent guise, the fish in these images is actually a robot manufactured in the 90s by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. His name is Charlie and he is believed to be the prelude to the unmanned marine vehicles that are currently used to explore the seabed.

The Charlie’s missions are still rankedBut we know its history through the CIA museum. Shaped like a catfish, Charlie was able to move around in water, maneuver, dive deep, provide information on his condition, and had sufficient range for the CIA to obtain information underwater.

A pioneer in 24-inch marine robotics

Measuring 24 inches long, 11 inches high and 7 inches wide, Charlie was the half the size of the usual catfish which normally reach a meter and a half. Despite its smaller dimensions, the appearance is quite successful, and underwater it is difficult to differentiate it from a real fish.

Charlie was the forerunner of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, a project led by the CIA’s Advanced Technologies and Programs division. We know, from a video presentation by the CIA itself, that the robot was used and that it had a communication system. However, its real purpose remains unknown because it is still classified.

Unsurprisingly, this fish-shaped robot was used to spy on other nations, which is equivalent to how the CIA itself used pigeons to spy on the Soviets.

The US military’s interest in collecting underwater information began in the 1950s. Spectrum IEEE recalls the Navy’s experiences with underwater rescue operations and drones. “The nature of the oceans means we can only go there with robots,” says 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.

Silent Nemo, a 2014 US Navy project where we have a robot shaped like a giant tuna.

Charlie wasn’t the only one with this name. Several years later, engineers at MIT created a tuna robot, also nicknamed Charlie. This same group at MIT continued to work on underwater robots, but the challenge was to get them to navigate precisely.

In 2014, the military presented its project “Silent Nemo”, a gigantic robot fish shaped like a tuna that has taken a step forward in maneuverability. In 2018, MIT unveiled SoFi, an underwater robot with a less camouflaged fish shape but with the ability to be controlled via a Super Nintendo controller. All these unmanned underwater robots in order to explore the seabed trying to go unnoticed.

While the most recent projects have ended up being scientific, the information Charlie and the CIA might have obtained is still in order.

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