Robotics scientists at the US’s Stanford University have achieved a remarkable first: they have successfully sent an automated avatar – which they describe as a robo-mermaid – down to an ancient shipwreck to retrieve a vase from the sunken vessel.
La Lune, the flagship of Louis XIV of France, sank 20 miles off the south coast city of Toulon in 1664. Only a few dozen of the hundreds of men on board survived. The wreck, which lies at a depth of 100 metres, had never been disturbed until the OceanOne robot craft reached it two weeks ago and recovered the grapefruit-size vase.
The humanoid diving robot was piloted, using virtual reality techniques, by Oussama Khatib, professor of computer science at Stanford. Sitting in a boat on the surface, he used joysticks to control the little underwater craft. Khatib said that combining human skills with the robo-mermaid’s robust structure will transform underwater exploration.
“The human can provide the robot with intuition, expertise and cognitive abilities. The robot can do things in areas too dangerous for a human, while the human is still there,” he told Stanford Newslast week.
Difficulties with air supply and the danger of decompression sickness – the bends – limit divers’ abilities to probe ancient wrecks and other deep-sea features. However, OceanOne’s success suggests it may be possible to extend underwater explorations for longer and at greater depths.
The spur that led to the design of OceanOne was a desire to study coral reefs deep beneath the Red Sea. These can be reached only by robot submersibles, and the Stanford project aims to combine human skills with the robustness of an automated submarine.
The craft, which looks surprisingly like a person, has human-like vision from two forward-facing cameras, while its “hands” have fully articulated wrists with force sensors that relay a sense of touch to Khatib’s hands, using a process known as haptic feedback.
The operator can “feel” whether an object in his robot hands is light and fragile or heavy and solid. In future, said Khatib, this sensitivity will be enhanced with tactile sensors. During OceanOne’s dive, Khatib was able to reach out to the vase on the deck of La Lune as the craft hovered. He could feel its contours and assess its weight before he shut it in a special basket and had it carried to the surface. According to Stanford News, the vase, which had not been touched for centuries, is in remarkably good condition although it was covered in ocean detritus and smelled like raw oysters.
“The intent is to have a human diving virtually – to put the human out of harm’s way,” said Khatib. “Having a machine with human characteristics, that can project the human diver at depth is going to be amazing. OceanOne will be your avatar.”
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