Diving robot searches for shipwrecks on the ocean floor

OceanOneK resembles a human diver from the front, with arms and hands and eyes with 3D vision to capture the underwater world in full color.

At the rear of the robot are computers and eight multidirectional thrusters to help maneuver the delicate sunken ship’s sites with caution.

When an operator on the surface of the ocean uses the controls to direct OceanOnKey, the robot’s haptic (touch-based) feedback system causes the person to feel the resistance of the water as well as the contours of the artifact.

The OceanOneK’s realistic vision and tactile capabilities are enough to make people feel like they’re diving to the depths—without the dangers or excessive underwater pressure a human diver would experience.

Stanford University roboticist Osama Khatib and his students, in collaboration with deep-sea archaeologists, began sending robots for dives in September. The team finished another underwater expedition in July.

So far, OceanOne has discovered the sunken Beechcraft Baron F-GDPV aircraft, the Italian steamship Le Francesco Crispi, a 2nd-century Roman ship from Corsica, a World War II P-38 Lightning aircraft and a submarine named Le Proti.

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Crispy sits about 1,640 feet (500 m) below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

“You’re getting very close to this amazing structure, and when you touch it something incredible happens: You really feel it,” said Khatib, a Weichai professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and director of the Stanford Robotics Lab.

“I had never experienced anything like this in my life. I can say that I am the one who touched Krispy at 500 (metres). And I did – I touched it, I felt it.”

OceanOne could be the beginning of a future where robots recognize underwater exploration as too dangerous for humans and help us see the oceans in an entirely new way.

Stanford University roboticist Osama Khatib (second from left) was able to sense sensations in his hands using the robot's feedback system.

underwater robot making

The challenge in building OceanOnKey and its predecessor, OceanOne, was building a robot that could withstand extreme pressure in the underwater environment and at various depths, Khatib said.

OceanOne made its debut in 2016. Exploring La Lune, the ruined flagship of King Louis XIV, which is 328 feet (100 m) below the Mediterranean Sea, 20 miles (32 kilometers) from southern France. The shipwreck of 1664 remained untouched by humans.

The robot recovered a vase about the size of a grapefruit, and Khatib felt sensations in his hands when OceanOne touched the vase before placing it in the recovery basket.

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The idea for OceanOne came from a desire to study coral reefs within the Red Sea at depths higher than the normal range for divers. The Stanford team wanted to create something that came as close to a human diver as possible, integrating artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and haptic feedback.

The robot is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long, and its brain can record how carefully to handle an object—like coral or ocean weather artifacts—without breaking it. An operator can control the bot, but it is outfitted with sensors and uploaded with algorithms so that it can act autonomously and avoid collisions.

While OceanOne was designed to reach a maximum depth of 656 feet (200 m), the researchers had a new goal: 1 kilometer (0.62 mi), hence the new name of OceanOne.

The team transformed the robot’s body using special foam, which contains microspheres of glass to increase buoyancy and counter pressure of 1,000 meters – more than 100 times what humans experience at sea level.

OceanOneKey passes an object capture test in a Stanford pool.

The researchers upgraded the robot’s arms with an oil-and-spring mechanism that prevents compression as it descends to the depths of the ocean. The OceanOneK also got two new hand types and increased arm and head movement.

The project comes with challenges he has never seen in any other system, said Wesley Guo, a doctoral student at the Stanford School of Engineering. “It requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to make those solutions work.”

The team used Stanford’s recreation pool to test the robot and run it through experiments, such as carrying a video camera on a boom and collecting objects. Then there was the final exam for OceanOnKey.

deep dive

A Mediterranean tour beginning in 2021 saw OceanOne dive to these successive depths: 406 ft (124 m) for the submarine, 1,095 ft (334 m) for the Roman ship, and finally 0.5 mi (852 m) to prove it. For that it has the ability to dive for about 1 kilometer. But it was not without problems.

OceanOneK reaches for cargo from an ancient Roman ship.

Guo and another Stanford doctoral student, Adrian Piedra, had to fix one of the robot’s disabled arms on the deck of their boat during a storm at night.

“For me, making a robot is eight years,” Piedra said. “You have to understand how every single part of this robot is working – what are the things that can go wrong, and things are always going to go wrong. So it’s always like a puzzle. Deep in the ocean Being able to dive in and find some debris that would never have been seen from this close is very rewarding.”

Students work to fix a problem with OceanOneK during a campaign.

During OceanOneK’s deep dive in February, team members found that the robot could not climb when they stopped for a thruster check. The flotation on the communications and power line had collapsed, causing the line to pile up on top of the robot.

They were able to pull in the slack, and OceanOne’s descent was a success. It dropped a memorial sign on the ocean floor that read, “A robot’s first touch of the deep ocean floor / A vast new world for humans to explore.”

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Computer science professor Khatib called the experience an “incredible journey”. “This is the first time that a robot has been able to go so deep, interact with the environment, and allow a human operator to feel that environment,” he said.

In July, the team revisited the Roman ship and Crispy. While the former has all but disappeared, its cargo is scattered across the ocean, Khatib said. At the site of a Roman ship, OceanOneK successfully collected ancient vases and oil lamps, which still bear the name of their creator.

The robot carefully placed a boom camera inside Crispy’s fractured hull to capture video of the buildup of coral and rust while the bacteria were feasting on the ship’s iron.

The robot propels a boom camera inside the hull of the Italian steamship Le Francesco Crispi.

“We go to France to campaign, and there, surrounded by a very large team, coming from a wide range of backgrounds, you discover that this piece of robot you are working on at Stanford is actually It’s part of something much bigger,” Piedra said.

“You get a sense of how important this is, how novel and important the dive is going to be, and what that means for science as a whole.”

a promising future

Planned campaigns for lost underwater cities, coral reefs and deep rubble have a long future in the project, born out of an idea in 2014. OceanOne’s innovations have formed the basis for safe underwater engineering projects such as repair of boats, ferries and pipelines.

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An upcoming mission will locate a sunken steamboat in Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia.

But Khatib and his team have even bigger dreams for the project: space.

Khatib said the European Space Agency has expressed interest in the robot. A haptic device on the International Space Station will allow astronauts to interact with robots.

“They can interact with robots deep in the water,” Khatib said, “and that would be amazing because it would simulate the act of doing so on a different planet or a different moon.”

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