Exploring the depths of Earth’s oceans is among the more challenging tasks facing the human race. Divers tend to have a hard time descending more than a few hundred feet below water due in part to the dramatic effects of water pressure — along with our general lack of gills. Enter Stanford University’s OceanOne, a humanoid robot initially conceived by the Palo Alto-based school to assist in the study the coral reef located in the depths of the Red Sea. But don’t fret about the prospect of this machine stealing any jobs; Stanford designed the AI-powered OceanOne to work in tandem with a human operator.
While working on the design of OceanOne, the team at Stanford always knew they wanted to develop a system that allowed the robot to function collaboratively with a human driver. The idea was that no robot, no matter how smart, could possess the same kind of care and skill as a human diver — that is, unless a human is the one carefully guiding the robot. About five feet long from end to end, OceanOne boasts stereoscopic vision built into its “head” that’s capable of transmitting exactly what it sees back to its operator. Additionally, the operator has fluid control over two articulated arms.
Though the entire robot is an impressive piece of engineering, perhaps the most noteworthy part of OceanOne is its innovative hands. Designed specifically to work with delicate coral reef or the perishable remains of shipwrecks, each hand features force sensors that transmit haptic feedback to the robot’s pilot. Because of this, the driver can feel exactly what OceanOne feels, helping determine if it’s grabbing something dense or delicate. In the future, Stanford says each finger will be fitted with tactile sensors that will also work to inform the robot’s built-in brain.
“You can feel exactly what the robot is doing,” said Stanford professor Oussama Khatib. “It’s almost like you are there; with the sense of touch, you create a new dimension of perception.”
To give the robot an inaugural whirl, Khatib and the team traveled to the Mediterranean Sea to plunder the ancient wreckage of La Lune. OceanOne deftly navigated the shipwreck (located some 330 feet underwater) and eventually grabbed what appeared to be a grapefruit-sized vase. After examining the vase and deciding to bring it to the surface, Khatib piloted the robot over to the team’s recovery basket, softly placed the object inside, and shut the lid. The basket was then brought above water, and Khatib and the rest of the team became the first people in hundreds of years to handle the vase thanks to the innovative OceanOne robot.
Khatib with the ancient vase salvaged from La Lune’s wreckage.