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Stanford’s OCEAN ONE: First Deep Sea Mission

Ocean One, a bimanual underwater humanoid robot, allows an unprecedented ability to explore the depths of the oceans. (Photo credit: Stanford University)

Stanford University’s Ocean One, a bimanual underwater humanoid robot with haptic feedback, is giving researchers unprecedented access to the depths of the oceans, previously too deep for humans to explore. In April of this year, Ocean One embarked on its maiden voyage on the French research vessel, Andre Malraux to explore the wreck of the flagship of King Louis XIV, La Lune, lying on the ocean floor 100 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. In 1664, La Lune had sunk there, 20 miles off the southern coast of France, too deep for humans to explored its ruins, or the treasures and artifacts the ship had possibly carried. The university team is working in collaboration with the French Département des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines, or DRASSM (French for Submarine and Undersea Archealogic Research).

Oussama Khatib, professor of computer science at Stanford,  studied the site prior to the expedition and spotted a small vase, compared to the size of a grapefruit. On April 15, Khatib boarded the Andre Malraux, and using a set of joysticks for control, maneuvered OceanOne  over the vase. The robot reached out, gently felt the contours of the vase and its weight, and then stuck a finger inside to get a good grip. These moves were all made possible through force sensors that transmit haptic feedback to the pilot, which researchers say is so sensitive they themselves can feel the weight and texture of an object. Khatib then maneuvered the robot to a recovery basket waiting on the ocean floor, gently laid the vase inside, and closed the lid on the basket.

The mission was a complete success. The vase was brought safely back to the boat, where Khatib was the first person to hold it in 300 years, to the excitement of the archaeologists, engineers, and scientists who crowded around him.

The concept for Ocean One developed from the need to study coral reefs deep in the Red Sea, far below the comfortable range of human divers. No existing robotic submarine could dive with the skill and care of a human diver. Each hand is fitted with force sensors that relay haptic feedback to the pilot’s controls, so the human shares the sense of touch. The human pilot can provide the intuition and expertise and cognitive abilities to the robot, forming amazing synergy. It is about five feet long from end to end, and features stereoscopic vision, two fully articulated arms, and eight thrusters.  As the robot’s body moves and drifts, the arms adjust to keep its hands steady as it works.

Based on the astonishing success of this first mission, the team anticipates that the robot will continue to take on highly-skilled underwater tasks too dangerous for human divers, allowing humans to dive virtually, out of harm’s way, opening up a whole new realm of ocean exploration.

This summer, Ocean One will return to the Stanford campus, where the team will continue developing the platform. The team is led by Stanford’s Oussama Khatib, and includes Xiyang yeh, Gerald Brantner, Brian Soe, Boyeon Kim, Mikael Jorda, Arjun V. Balasingam, Shameek Ganguly, Hannah Stuart, Mark Cutkosky, and ShiquanWang.

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