Floating serenely above the sea grass, tethered to the boat above by only a length of cabling, Stanford’s robotic mermaid, OceanOne, calmly goes about its task, collecting samples and exploring the long submerged wreck.
The robot, brought to life by Oussama Khatib and his team of computer scientists, is designed to open new doors for ocean exploration, taking on tasks too dangerous for, or beyond the physical reach of human divers.
The idea behind OceanOne is to allow divers to dive ‘virtually’, controlling from dry land a submersible robot, an avatar that will become the physical representation of the human. This physical representation is truly astounding; with the robot only slightly larger than life, it features a torso complete with two fully articulated arms and hands to gather samples and balance the body in the water and stereoscopic vision, allowing the pilot to see exactly what the robot sees. It even offers the pilot aboard the boat the ability to feel the robot’s interaction with its surroundings.
The robot’s senses rely on haptic feedback, which transmits the contact forces felt by the robot’s hands to the joysticks operated by the pilot on board the support vessel. This allows the pilot to determine whether the robot is grasping something solid and heavy, or light and delicate, giving a whole new dimension of perception to the human ‘diver’ on the boat.
Putting the robot through its paces, OceanOne’s maiden voyage saw it cruising the wreck of La Lune, King Louis the Fourteenth’s naval flagship, which foundered off the coast of France more than 350 years ago. Resting on the ocean floor 100m below the Mediterranean Sea, the ruins have remained untouched by humans to this day, its treasures entombed inside since the day it sank.
Guided by a team of highly-skilled ocean archaeologists and piloted from the surface by Khatib, Ocean One embarked on a mission to explore the wreck, dextrously recovering a 16th century vase from within the ruins.
Sensors throughout the robot measure current and turbulence, autonomously activating thrusters to maintain its position in the water. As well as feeding back visual information to the pilot on the surface, OceanOne’s stereovision and battery of sensors allow it to navigate through its environment, building on its artificial intelligence as it moves.
The development of OceanOne combines human expertise and cognitive ability with all of the advantages of a remotely operated vehicle, bringing man and machine together in perfect synergy. The oil-filled body of OceanOne means not only can it swim to depths unreachable by man, it can work in scenarios deemed too dangerous for human intervention. In addition to exploring shipwrecks, the robot’s articulate wrists make it adept at manipulating delicate coral reef research, or placing delicate underwater sensors.
Ultimately, Khatib intends to fit OceanOne with a raft of fingertip sensors, giving the pilot a complete sensory experience, and ensuring human divers are kept well out of harm’s way in future deep-sea exploration missions.