Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Techy Tuesday - Stanford's New Humanoid Diving Robot

This is probably the coolest tech story that's crossed my email this week.  California's Stanford University is one of the premier academic institutions in the country, and the source of many innovations we use in daily life.  This week, Design News reports on the first open ocean trials of a humanoid (or semi- / sorta- humanoid) robot, OceanOne.
The robot's shipwreck excursion was its maiden voyage, on a dive 100 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea to La Lune, wrecked in 1664 and not touched since by human hands. OceanOne operates like a highly specialized remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and looks something like an unusually shaped ROV attached to a humanoid torso, arms, and head.
OceanOne was designed to work with human divers or by itself.  It connects to an operator on the surface through cables, carrying binocular vision images, and moving in response to a set of hand controls the operator on the surface uses.  A unique aspect of OceanOne is that it conveys haptic information - a sense of touch - to the operator.  The operator can see an object on the bottom and feel the object through sensors on the robot's sorta-humanoid hands.   Stanford's summary says:
With guidance from a team of skilled deep-sea archaeologists who had studied the site, [Ousamma] Khatib, a professor of computer science at Stanford, spotted a grapefruit-size vase. He hovered precisely over the vase, reached out, felt its contours and weight, and stuck a finger inside to get a good grip. He swam over to a recovery basket, gently laid down the vase and shut the lid. Then he stood up and high-fived the dozen archaeologists and engineers who had been crowded around him.
When the robot grabbed that vase, Khatib was the first person to "feel" it since 1664.  Later, when the vase was brought to the surface, he was able to really hold it.
The concept for OceanOne was born from the need to study coral reefs deep in the Red Sea, far below the comfortable range of human divers. No existing robotic submarine can dive with the skill and care of a human diver, so OceanOne was conceived and built from the ground up, a successful marriage of robotics, artificial intelligence and haptic feedback systems.

OceanOne looks something like a robo-mermaid. Roughly five feet long from end to end, its torso features a head with stereoscopic vision that shows the pilot exactly what the robot sees, and two fully articulated arms. The “tail” section houses batteries, computers and eight multi-directional thrusters.
As this photo of OceanOne shows, I think describing it as a "robo-mermaid" is a bit overly poetic.  It doesn't look like a typical boxy remote submarine, but the similarity to humans is limited to binocular vision, two arms, and perhaps a tendency to look more like a diver stretched out than a box.
The robot is oil-filled to help in surviving the extremely hostile environment of the ocean depths, where the pressure goes up one atmosphere (14.6 pounds per square inch) every 33 feet deeper (10 meters) an explorer goes.  OceanOne is expected to work down to 1000 meters; 100 atmospheres of pressure.  The record for a human dive, not doing constructive work while at depth, is 1000 feet, about 1/3 of the depth OceanOne can work.
Although the robot can communicate with human divers via hand gestures controlled by its pilot, it can also operate independently and will be especially useful when diving without them during dangerous tasks. Those might include oil-rig maintenance, deep-water mining, or underwater exploration during disaster situations like the Fukushima Daiichi power plant nuclear disaster.

OceanOne contains sensors throughout its body for gauging current and turbulence, which automatically activate its thrusters to keep the robot's body in place. At the same time, quick-firing motors adjust the robot's arms to keep its hands steady while it works. The robot navigates via data received and processed from both sensors and cameras to avoid collision. One advantage of the humanoid body shape is the ability to use its arms for bracing against impact if the thrusters aren't moving fast enough.
People tend to be pretty casual about ocean depths and diving, but it's an incredibly hostile environment.  It has been said we have better knowledge of the surfaces of the moons of Jupiter than we do of the ocean floor.  Look at the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000.  The Kursk, a Russian submarine, went down in a mere 350 feet of water, not even the length of a football field and its two end zones under the surface.  Considering the ability we had as a species to go rescue any survivors, they might as well have been on the moon. 

All in all, a pretty cool toy innovation.  OceanOne is the only one of it's type, but Dr. Khatib plans a small "fleet" of these robots.  This is only the first.  Check out the Stanford article; more photos and video there, too.


  1. That is an *awesome* new tool...robot...thing! ROV? But I had to mention that the Wikipedia article you linked to (about the Kursk disaster) seems to imply that the tech to save the 23 survivors of the initial explosion *did* exist, but the Russians didn't have it and waited too long to let other nations help them. It doesn't change the fact that we know more about extraterrestrial objects than we do our own oceans, but I thought it was a point worth making, you know? We (it seems) had the technology, but bureaucrats refused to let it be used...go figure.
    :-/ God bless! :-)

    1. I thought about that, and it's true that the biggest problems with getting some rescue resources to that boat were political. There's a handful of submersibles around the world that could have done a rescue; none of them were close enough to be on that sub within an hour, say. If I recall, there wasn't one within a day's travel.

      And that's kind of my point about how hostile the environment is down there. If it was as easy as climbing 350 feet up a hill, those sailors would be alive today (ignoring the explosion that killed so many of them). Climbing 350 feet is trivial. Going 350' underwater is pretty rough.

  2. When do we get a "JohnnyCab"??

  3. Seems like a logical extension of Heinlein's Waldos.

    Hat tip to drjim. And autonomous vehicles may put "JohnnyCab" closer than we thought.

    On the subject of submarine sinkings, I recommend Ellsberg's book, "On The Bottom," about the sinking and salvage of the S-51. The sub collided with a steamship and sank in 1925.


  4. I would only note that, to the "men" of Stanford, OceanOne may indeed look like their vision of a mermaid. After all, every one of them would get positively orgasmic over a photo of Hillary.

    They would undoubtedly even fight Huma for the opportunity to "service" her.