(CNN) – A robot created at Stanford University in California dives into shipwrecks and sunken planes in a way that humans cannot. The robot, known as OceanOneK, allows its operators to feel like they are underwater explorers, too.
OceanOneK looks like a human diver from the front, with arms, hands and eyes with 3D vision, capturing the underwater world in full color.
The back of the robot contains computers and eight multi-directional thrusters that help it carefully maneuver around fragile sinking ships.
When a worker on the ocean surface uses controls to steer the OceanOneK, the robot’s tactile (touch) feedback system makes one feel the water resistance, as well as the artifact features.
OceanOneK’s tactile capabilities and realistic visuals are enough to make people feel as if they are diving into the depths, without the dangers or enormous underwater pressure that a human diver would be exposed to.
Stanford roboticist Osama Al-Khatib and his students collaborated with deep-sea archaeologists, and in September they began sending the robot to dive. The team just completed another underwater expedition in July.
So far, OceanOneK has explored a sunken Beechcraft Baron F-GDPV aircraft, the Italian steamer Le Francesco Crispi, a 2nd century Roman ship off Corsica, a WWII P-38 Lightning aircraft, and a submarine called Le Protect.
Crispi is located about 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.
“You get very close to this amazing structure, and an amazing thing happens when you touch it: you really feel it,” said Khatib, Weichai Professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and director of the Stanford Robotics Laboratory.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life. I can say I was the one who touched the Krispy at 500 (meters). And I did it, I touched it, I felt it.”
OceanOneK could be just the beginning of a future in which robots are taking underwater exploration very dangerous to humans, helping us see the oceans in a whole new way.
Make an underwater robot
Al-Khatib said the challenge in creating OceanOneK and its predecessor, OceanOne, was to build a robot that could withstand an underwater environment and tremendous pressure at different depths.
OceanOne debuted in 2016, exploring King Louis XIV’s wrecked ship, La Lune, located 100 meters (328 feet) under the Mediterranean Sea 32 kilometers (20 miles) from southern France. The shipwreck of 1664 remained untouched by humans.
The robot retrieved a vase the size of a grapefruit, and the fiancé felt sensations in his hands when Ocean One touched the vase before placing it in a retrieval basket.
The idea for OceanOne arose from a desire to study coral reefs within the Red Sea at depths beyond the normal range of divers. The Stanford team wanted to create something as close to a human diver as possible, integrating artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and haptic feedback.
The robot is about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, and its brain can record how eager it is to handle anything without breaking it, such as corals or artifacts eroded in the sea. The operator can control the robot, but it is equipped with sensors and loaded with algorithms so that it can operate independently and avoid collisions.
While the OceanOne was designed to reach maximum depths of 200 meters (656 feet), the researchers had a new target: 1 kilometer (0.62 mi), hence the new name OceanOneK.
The team altered the robot’s body using a special foam containing glass pellets to increase buoyancy and combat pressures by 1,000 metres, more than 100 times what humans experience at sea level.
Researchers have improved the robot’s arms with a spring-loaded mechanism and oil that prevents pressure as it descends into the ocean depths. OceanOneK also gets two new types of hands and increased arm and arm mobility.
Wesley Jo, a doctoral student at the Stanford School of Engineering, said the project comes with challenges not seen in any other system. “A lot of innovative thinking is needed to make these solutions work.”
The team used the Stanford Recreational Dock to test the robot and perform experiments, such as holding a video camera in a pen and collecting objects. Then came OceanOneK’s final test.
On a tour of the Mediterranean that began in 2021, OceanOneK dived to these successive depths: 124 meters (406 feet) to the submarine, 334 meters (1,095 feet) to the remains of a Roman ship, and eventually 852 meters (0.5 miles) to prove Its ability to dive for approximately one kilometer. But it was not a smooth road.
Guo and another Stanford PhD student, Adrian Pedra, had to repair one of the robot’s malfunctioning arms on the deck of their boat at night during a storm.
“For me, it took eight years to make the robot,” Pedra said. “You have to understand how every part of this robot works: what all things can go wrong, and things always go wrong. So it’s always like a puzzle. Being able to dive into the depths of the ocean and explore some sunken shipwrecks what could have been seen up close, it’s It’s so much fun.
During an OceanOneK deep dive in February, team members found that the rover was unable to ascend when they stopped to check on thrust. The buoys on the communications and electrical line collapsed, causing the line to pile up on top of the robot.
They fixed it and OceanOneK did. He left a commemorative sign on the sea floor that read: “First touch of a robot at the bottom of the deep sea / A vast new world explored by humans.”
Al-Khatib, a professor of computer science, described the experience as an “incredible journey.” “This is the first time a robot has been able to go so deep and interact with the environment and let the human operator feel that environment,” he said.
In July, the team revisited the Roman and Crispi ship. Al-Khatib said that while the first has almost disappeared, its cargo is still scattered on the sea floor. On the site of the Roman ships, OceanOneK succeeded in collecting ancient vases and oil lamps, which still bear the name of their maker.
The robot carefully placed a camera inside Crispi’s broken hull to capture video of coral and rust formations as bacteria feed on the ship’s iron.
“We go to France for the expedition, and there, surrounded by a much larger team, coming from a wide range of backgrounds, you realize that the piece of this robot that you were working on at Stanford is actually part of something much bigger,” Pedra said.
“You get an idea of how important this is, how novel and important the immersion is, and what this means for science in general.”
The project that emerged from an idea in 2014 has a long future of planned expeditions to lost underwater cities, reefs and deep shipwrecks. OceanOneK’s innovations also lay the foundation for safer undersea engineering projects, such as repairing ships, docks and pipelines.
An upcoming mission will explore a sunken steamboat in Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia.
But Khatib and his team have bigger dreams for the project: space.
Al-Khatib said the European Space Agency has shown an interest in the robot. A haptic device on board the International Space Station will allow astronauts to interact with the robot.
“They can interact with the robot deep in the water, and this would be amazing because it would simulate the task of doing that on a different planet or on a different moon,” Al-Khatib said.