At Sea with Underwater Robots

Underwater robots are helping with oil spills, defining international boundaries, and more

2 min read
At Sea with Underwater Robots

Underwater robots are one of my areas of interest and the last few months have been full of cool news in the UUV realm. From new research initiatives to innovative applications, there's some fun stuff going on. Briefly, some highlights:

  • In current events news, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico led BP to attempt using Oceaneering Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to shut off the pipeline (read more about that here). They were ultimately unsuccessful, and BP is collaborating with the US military to see if the have any underwater systems that may perform better, but this is one situation where robots are definitely doing important work in place of humans at depths and in environmental conditions that are extremely dangerous.

  • In mildly horrifying news, the South Korean government is spending $18M to develop underwater crawler robots to do geological and biological surveys. Unfortunately, they're six legged, and I dislike creepy crawly things with more than four legs. They'll only be able to crawl at about 1 mph, but still -- creepy.

  • AUVs can have serious political implications -- in this case, they're surveying the continental shelf off the coast of Canada in the Arctic to determine exactly where the shelf ends. Surveying these areas may allow Canada to claim more of the ocean floor for mineral or oil deposits -- not to mention all the shipping lanes that are opening up as the Artic ice is melting. (We've previously discussed some of the challenges of AUV operation under the Arctic ice)

  • And finally, in some sadder news, a very famous AUV named ABE, developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was lost during a mission off the coast of Chile. ABE was technically in retirement and had been reassembled for one last mission when some catastrophic failure -- probably of one of the glass buoyancy spheres -- at 3000m depth caused what we in the biz refer to euphemistically as an "unintended depth excursion." ABE's loss hits the entire underwater robotics community -- it successfully completed many important research missions and pioneered a lot of deep-ocean robotic technology. Here's an interesting bit from one of the team's engineers on what may have caused the failure, along with a touching tribute from one of ABE's inventors (borrowed from Robert Louis Stevenson)

Image from the Korea Times

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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