Love Is in the Water For Some Reason at RoboSub 2011

This year's questionable Valentine's Day theme in no way makes autonomous robot submarines any less cool

2 min read
Love Is in the Water For Some Reason at RoboSub 2011

It's the 14th year of AUVSI's RoboSub competition, which of course means that all of this year's challenges are love-themed. You know, because of 14. Valentine's Day. It's the 14th. Of February. Yeah, I dunno, if it was me I would have gone for a The Hunt for Red October theme or something a little, uh, edgier.

Anyway, the competition took place from July 12 to 17 at the U.S. Navy's SPAWAR System Center down in San Diego, where nearly 30 teams (including both high school and international teams) unleashed their autonomous robot submarines against a hapless swimming pool filled with gates, buoys, paths to follow, objects to retrieve, and targets to torpedo. If you're wondering why this is so hard, here's a comment on last year's competition from the 2010 Maryland team's advisor:

Some more food for thought on how difficult the competition is: navigation for subs can’t rely on GPS (GPS signals only penetrate a few inches in the water), there’s no contact with the ground (so you can’t use encoders), and substantial random currents render dead reckoning worthless. The teams that can afford it buy a Doppler Velocity Logger (costs around $20k) to give them ground-track velocity.

Water is a difficult environment in which to maneuver. Teams must either make a vehicle that is so large that it can’t spin out of control or make a vehicle that can control its 3D orientation as well as 3D position. There is a strict penalty for large vehicles, so most teams opt for fancy control. It is worthwhile to note that in some years of this competition only a third of the teams could actually drive underwater in a straight line.

Competition objectives include not just visual tasks which are difficult underwater (light patterns caused by sunlight passing through the surface are called caustics and make shape recognition challenging) but acoustic objectives as well. The highest-scoring competition objectives require a passive sonar system.

So yeah, even tasks that would be a dead cinch for a robot driving on land is extremely difficult for a robot under the water. I'd go on about this, but it's more fun to just watch the recap vids from all three days of the competition, so here you go:

Part of the competition required each team to put up a website about their robot, and you'll find links to all of those (with tons more info) at the link below.

[ RoboSub ]

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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
LightGreen

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

"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.

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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