Maiden mission a success
Sometimes, you just can't help but be overwhelmed by what today's technology can achieve. It seems like just yesterday we were marvelling at driverless cars, and now... a humanoid robot that dives for sunken treasure?
Well, this is precisely what a professor and his students have invented. Named OceanOne, the robot had successfully completed its maiden mission – salvaging items from the La Lune shipwreck, about 30 kilometres off the coast of the port of Toulon in France. Sunk in 1664, it had been the flagship of Louis XIV. Since its discovery in 1993 at a depth of hundred feet, no one had ever explored the wreck before.
Not in person, anyway.
Now, through the eyes of OceanOne (More specifically, two cameras in the front of the robot's head to give it stereoscopic vision, allowing the operator to see what the robot “sees”), Professor Oussama Khatib manipulated the movements of the robot with eight multi-directional thrusters. As the robot gracefully manoeuvred itself over the wreck, the professor and his team remained dry on board a ship, using a joystick to remotely control the robot's movements.
At the end of this mission, as the recovery basket was brought on board, the professor and crew laid eyes on ancient artefacts from days gone by, including an grapefruit-sized vase (which the robot had retrieved from the wreck using its fingers) that no human hands has touched for more than 350 years.
Evidently, their hard work had paid off, as they celebrated with bottles of champagne.
For the past several years, Professor Khatib (professor of computer science at Stanford University in California) his students had been developing the humanoid diving robot. Now, its capabilities have exceeded all expectations. The robot was given a humanoid form, with a head with two eyes, a torso and two arms. The “tail” section contains the computers, batteries and eight thrusters.
Through haptic feedback sensors, finely articulated joints and artificial intelligence, the operator can control the movements of the robot, telling it to grip, pause and move in three directions. He sees what the robot sees through the eyes. The hands contain sensors that indicate whether an object is hard or soft, or whether it weighs a few grams or a few kilogram’s.
What's more, the robot even has sensors that allow it to gauge ocean current and turbulence, so that it can automatically activate thrusters to remain in place, without the operator having to intervene.
Although the dive at La Luna was just at 100 metres depth, OceanOne has been constructed to withstand dives of up to a thousand metres – as its sensible areas have been filled with oil – without developing any problems.
The need for such a robot stems from the study of deepsea coral reefs in the Red Sea. There are limits to how deep and how long human divers can remain underwater, not to mention the need for decompression stops and the inherent danger in any diving operation. Diving robots, on the other hand, present no such issues.
And with OceanOne, the operator is in complete control of the robot and what it does. “You can feel exactly what the robot is doing. It's almost like you are there; with the sense of touch, you create a new dimension of perception,” said Professor Khatib.
With the excitement of the maiden expedition under their belts, Professor Khatib's team has returned to their University where they will continue to fine-tune the operations of OceanOne. From this initial success, one can look forward to a future in which robotic divers are sent in place of human divers in dangerous locations, working at places like pipelines and oil platforms, or in crisis situations like the nuclear accident at Fukushima.