Stanford researchers have successfully tested a humanoid diving robot outfitted with human vision, haptic force feedback and an artificial brain. The robot, dubbed OceanOne, retrieved a vase from the wreck of La Lune, the flagship of King Louis XIV, which sank 20 miles off the southern coast of France in the Mediterranean Sea 350 years ago.

Oussama Khatib, professor of computer engineering, operated the robot with joysticks from a boat floating 100 meters above the wreckage. From above, Khatib spotted the grapefruit-size vase, hovered OceanOne over it, reached out its hands, felt the vase's contours and weight and stuck a finger inside to get a good grip. The robot then swam over to a recovery basket, gently laid down the vase and shut the lid.

The expedition to La Lune was OceanOne’s maiden voyage. Based on its success, Khatib hopes that the robot will one day take on highly complex underwater tasks too dangerous for human divers, as well as open up a whole new realm of ocean exploration.

“OceanOne will be your avatar,” Khatib says. “The intent here is to have a human diving virtually, to put the human out of harm’s way. Having a machine that has human characteristics that can project the human diver’s embodiment at depth is going to be amazing.”

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 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.

OceanOne's torso features a head with stereoscopic vision and two fully articulated arms. Image credit: Frederic Osada and Teddy Seguin/DRASSM.OceanOne's torso features a head with stereoscopic vision and two fully articulated arms. Image credit: Frederic Osada and Teddy Seguin/DRASSM.While the body looks dramatically different to conventional boxy robotic submersibles, it is the hands that really set OceanOne apart. Each fully articulated wrist is fitted with force sensors that relay haptic feedback to the pilot’s controls, so the human can feel whether the robot is grasping something firm and heavy or light and delicate. (Eventually, each finger will be covered with tactile sensors.)

The robot’s brain reads the data and makes sure that its hands keep a firm grip on objects, but doesn’t damage items by squeezing too tightly. In addition to exploring shipwrecks, this makes it adept at carrying out delicate coral reef research and placing underwater sensors with precision.

“You can feel exactly what the robot is doing,” Khatib says. “It’s almost like you are there; with the sense of touch you create a new dimension of perception.”

The pilot can take control at any moment, but most frequently won’t need to lift a finger. Sensors throughout the robot gauge current and turbulence, automatically activating the thrusters to keep the robot in place. And even as the body moves, quick-firing motors adjust the arms to keep its hands steady as it works.

Navigation relies on perception of the environment, from both sensors and cameras, and these data run through smart algorithms that help OceanOne avoid collisions. If it senses that its thrusters won’t slow it down quickly enough, it can quickly brace for impact with its arms, an advantage of a humanoid body build.

The humanoid form also means that when OceanOne dives alongside actual humans, its pilot can communicate through hand gestures during complex tasks or scientific experiments. Ultimately, though, Khatib designed OceanOne with an eye toward getting human divers out of harm’s way. Every aspect of the robot’s design is meant to allow it to take on tasks that are either dangerous—deep-water mining, oil-rig maintenance or underwater disaster situations like the Fukushima Daiichi power plant—or simply beyond the physical limits of human divers.

“We connect the human to the robot in a very intuitive and meaningful way. The human can provide intuition and expertise and cognitive abilities to the robot,” Khatib says.

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