The underwater robot explores ship wrecks on the ocean floor

OceanOneK resembles a human diver in front, with arms, hands and eyes that have a 3D view, capturing the underwater world in full color.

The rear of the robot has computers and eight multidirectional thrusters that help it carefully maneuver the sites of fragile sunken ships.

When an operator on the ocean surface uses the controls to direct OceanOneK, the robot’s tactile (touch-based) feedback system causes the person to feel the resistance of the water and the contours of the artifacts.

OceanOneK’s lifelike visual and tactile capabilities are enough to make people feel like they are diving into the depths, without the dangers or immense underwater pressure that a human diver would experience.

Stanford University robotist Oussama Khatib and his students teamed up with deep-sea archaeologists and began sending the robot on dives in September. The team just finished another diving expedition in July.

So far, OceanOneK has explored a sunken Beechcraft Baron F-GDPV aircraft, the Italian steamship Le Francesco Crispi, a second-century Roman ship off Corsica, a WWII P-38 Lightning aircraft, and a submarine called Le Protée.

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The Crispi is located about 500 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

“You are getting very close to this amazing facility and when you touch it something amazing happens – you really feel it,” said Khatib, the Weichai professor of Stanford’s School of Engineering and director of the Stanford Robotics Lab.

“I had never tried anything like this in my life. I can say that it was I who touched the Crispi at 500 (meters). And I did it, I touched it, I felt it”.

OceanOneK could be just the beginning of a future where robots undertake underwater explorations that are too dangerous for humans and help us see the oceans in a whole new way.

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

Creation of an underwater robot

The challenge in creating OceanOneK and its predecessor, OceanOne, was building a robot that could withstand an underwater environment and immense pressure at various depths, Khatib said.

OceanOne made its debut in 2016, exploring King Louis XIV’s destroyed flagship La Lune, located 100 meters below the Mediterranean, 32 kilometers off the coast of southern France. The shipwreck of 1664 remained untouched by man.

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

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OceanOne’s idea was born out of a desire to study coral reefs within the Red Sea at depths beyond 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 register how carefully it has to handle an object without breaking it, such as corals or sea-altered artifacts. An operator can control the bot, but it is equipped with sensors and loaded with algorithms so that it can operate autonomously and avoid collisions.

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

The team changed the robot’s body using a special foam that includes glass microspheres to increase buoyancy and fight the pressure of 1,000 meters, more than 100 times what humans experience at sea level.

OceanOneK passes a test to grab an object in a Stanford swimming pool.

The researchers updated the robot’s arms with an oil-and-spring mechanism that prevents compression as it descends into the ocean depths. OceanOneK also got two new types of hands and an increase in arm and head movement.

The project presents challenges he has never seen in any other system, said Wesley Guo, a doctoral student at Stanford’s School of Engineering. “It takes a lot of thinking outside the box to make these solutions work.”

The team used Stanford’s recreational pool to test the robot and perform experiments, such as carrying a video camera on one arm and picking up objects. Then came the definitive test for OceanOneK.

Deep dives

A tour of the Mediterranean that began in 2021 saw OceanOneK dive to these successive depths: 406 feet (124 meters) to the submarine, 1,095 feet (334 meters) to the remains of the Roman ship, and finally 0.5 miles (852 meters) to prove it has the diving capacity to almost 1 kilometer. But it wasn’t without problems.

OceanOneK searches for cargo from an ancient Roman ship.

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

“For me, the robot has eight years of work,” Piedra said. “You have to understand how every single part of this robot works: what are all the things that can go wrong and things always go wrong. So it’s always like a puzzle. Being able to dive deep into the ocean and explore some wrecks that they would never have been seen so closely is very gratifying. “

Students work to solve a problem with OceanOneK during an expedition.

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

They were able to pull the game and OceanOneK’s descent was a success. A commemorative marker has fallen to the bottom of the sea that reads: “The first touch of a robot to the bottom of the deep sea / A vast new world for humans to explore”.

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

In July the team revisited the Roman ship and the Crispi. While the former has almost disappeared, her cargo remains scattered on the seabed, Khatib said. At the site of the Roman ship, OceanOneK successfully collected antique vases and oil lamps, which still bear the manufacturer’s name.

The robot carefully positioned an arm camera inside the Crispi’s fractured hull to capture video of coral and rust formations as bacteria feed on the ship’s iron.

The robot extends an arm camera inside the hull of the Italian steamship Le Francesco Crispi.

“We go all the way to France for the expedition and there, surrounded by a much larger team from a wide range of backgrounds, you realize that the piece of this robot you worked on at Stanford is actually part of something very bigger, ”Piedra said.

“You have an idea of ​​how important it is, how new and meaningful immersion will be and what it means for science in general.”

A promising future

The project born from an idea in 2014 has a long future of planned expeditions to lost underwater cities, coral reefs and deep wrecks. OceanOneK’s innovations also lay the foundation for safer underwater engineering projects such as repairing boats, piers and pipelines.

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An upcoming mission will explore a sunken steamship 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 tactile device aboard the International Space Station would allow astronauts to interact with the robot.

“They can interact with the robot in the depths of the water,” Khatib said, “and that would be great because it would simulate the task of doing it on a different planet or a different moon.”


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