OceanOneK resembles a human diver from the front, with arms, hands and eyes that have 3D vision, capturing the underwater world in full color.
Computers and eight multi-directional thrusters are located on the back of the robot, allowing it to carefully maneuver the locations of fragile sunken ships.
When an operator at the sea surface controls OceanOneK with controls, the robot’s haptic (touch-based) feedback system causes the person to feel the resistance of the water as well as the contours of artifacts.
OceanOneK’s realistic sight and touch capabilities are enough to make people feel like they’re diving to depths – without the dangers or immense underwater pressure that a human diver would be exposed to.
Stanford University roboticist Oussama Khatib and his students teamed up with deep-sea archaeologists and sent the robot on dives in September. The team just finished another underwater expedition in July.
So far, OceanOneK has explored a sunken Beechcraft Baron F-GDPV aircraft, the Italian steamship Le Francesco Crispi, a 2nd-century Roman ship off Corsica, a WWII P-38 Lightning aircraft, and a submarine named Le Protée .
The Crispi is about 500 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.
“You move very close to this amazing structure, and when you touch it, something incredible happens: you actually feel it,” said Khatib, a Weichai professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and director of the Stanford Robotics Lab.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life. I can say that I am the one who touched the crispi at 500 (meters). And I did it – I touched it, I felt it.”
OceanOneK could just be the beginning of a future where robots will take over underwater exploration too dangerous for humans and help us see the oceans in a whole new way.
Creating an underwater robot
The challenge in developing OceanOneK and its predecessor OceanOne was to build a robot that could withstand an underwater environment and the immense pressure at different depths, Khatib said.
The robot recovered a vase the size of a grapefruit and Khatib felt the sensations in his hands as OceanOne touched the vase before placing it in a recovery basket.
The idea for OceanOne came from a desire to study coral reefs in the Red Sea at depths beyond the normal reach of divers. The Stanford team wanted to create something as close to a human diver as possible by integrating artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and haptic feedback.
The robot is about 1.5 meters long and its brain can register how carefully it has to handle an object without damaging it – such as coral or sea-weathered artifacts. An operator can control the bot, but it is equipped with sensors and uploaded with algorithms so that it can function autonomously and avoid collisions.
While OceanOne was designed to reach a maximum depth of 200 meters, the researchers had a new goal: 1 kilometer (0.62 miles), hence the new name for OceanOneK.
The team modified the robot’s body by using a special foam containing glass microspheres to increase buoyancy and fight the pressure of 1,000 meters – more than 100 times what humans experience at sea level.
The researchers upgraded the robot’s arms with an oil and spring mechanism that prevents compression as it descends to the ocean depths. OceanOneK also has two new types of hands and improved arm and head movement.
The project presents challenges he hasn’t seen in any other system, said Wesley Guo, a graduate student at Stanford School of Engineering. “It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to make these solutions work.”
The team used Stanford’s recreation pool to test the robot and conduct experiments such as B. carrying a video camera on a boom and collecting objects. Then came the ultimate test for OceanOneK.
On a Mediterranean tour that began in 2021, OceanOneK descended 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 that it has the ability of diving to almost 1 kilometer. But it wasn’t without problems.
Guo and another Stanford graduate student, Adrian Piedra, had to attach one of the robot’s disabled arms to the deck of their boat one night during a storm.
“For me, the robot is eight years in development,” said Piedra. “You have to understand how every single part of this robot works – what can go wrong and what always goes wrong. So it’s always like a puzzle. To be able to dive deep into the ocean and explore some wrecks that would never have been seen up close is very rewarding.”
During OceanOneK’s deep dive in February, team members discovered the robot was unable to ascend when they stopped for an engine check. Floats on the communications and power lines had collapsed, causing the line to pile up on top of the robot.
They were able to close the gap and OceanOneK’s descent was a success. It left a plaque on the seabed that read “A robot’s first touch with the deep seabed / A vast new world for humans to explore”.
Khatib, a computer science professor, called the experience an “incredible journey”. “This is the first time that a robot is able to penetrate 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 all but disappeared, its cargo remains scattered across the seabed, Khatib said. At the site of the Roman ship, OceanOneK successfully collected antique vases and oil lamps that still bear the name of their maker.
The robot carefully placed a cantilever camera inside the Crispi’s fractured hull to capture video of coral and rust formations as bacteria feed on the ship’s iron.
“We drive all the way to France for the expedition, and there, surrounded by a much larger team that comes from a wide variety of backgrounds, you realize that the part of this robot that they worked on at Stanford is actually a part there’s something much bigger about it,” Piedra said.
“You get a sense of how important this is, how novel and meaningful the dive will be, and what that means for science as a whole.”
A promising future
Born from an idea in 2014, the project has a bright future of planned expeditions to lost underwater cities, coral reefs and deep wrecks. OceanOneK’s innovations also form the basis for safer underwater construction projects such as boat, pier and pipeline repairs.
An upcoming mission will explore a sunken steamboat in Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia.
But Khatib and his team have even bigger dreams for the project: outer space.
Khatib said the European Space Agency has expressed an interest in the robot. A haptic device aboard the International Space Station would allow astronauts to interact with the robot.
“You can interact with the robot deep in the water,” Khatib said, “and that would be amazing because it would simulate the task of doing that on another planet or moon.”