It is said that we know more about outer space than we do about the vast oceans on this planet. But new types of robots—underwater autonomous vehicles or AUVs—are helping to open the ocean to researchers in new ways. Marine robots today can rebuild coral ecosystems, measure the thickness of ice floes, and explore the ocean floors.
Restoring and conserving coral reefs
Twenty percent of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed due to both natural and man-made events. Hurricanes, fishing, water traffic, pollution and too many visitors have all damaged coral reefs.
A project called Coralbots currently underway at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland has a vision to use autonomous underwater robots to help repair and rebuild the world’s coral reefs.
Left on their own, coral reef regrowth and regeneration is a very slow process due to pieces of coral breaking off and getting scattered. The Coralbots help find and collect pieces of living coral and bring them back together to speed regrowth efforts. The bots can also repair reefs in deeper water where human divers can’t help.
“The Coralbots project is making steady progress on coral recognition software. We achieved state-of-the-art results in coral recognition recently and are looking at further improvement with ‘deep learning’ methods,” explains David Corne, a professor at Heriot-Watt University.
Corne’s colleague, Lea-Anne Henry adds, “Our dedicated robot platform will be in place soon – probably a VideoRay Remotely Operated Vehicle. Our Belize associate is also taking a series of high-resolution images to help us prepare for the first Belize mission. In parallel, we are already looking ahead to the next generation of Coralbots which will make use of soft robotics to handle delicate specimens.”
The startup phase of Coralbots—which included research into swarm ‘micro-rules’ that guide Coralbot behavior, computer vision capabilities, and robot arm/gripper prototypes—was supported by seed funding and efforts from numerous volunteer students and scientists, and the project is actively seeking new donors.
Researching the Antarctic climate
Australian researchers are using AUVs to map the underside of Antarctic ice with multi-beam sonar while helicopters conduct 3D mapping from above. The robot, swimming 65 feet below the ice, uses a back and forth “lawnmower” grid pattern to scan the ice and stores the data in an on-board computer.
After each survey, this data is converted into a 3D map of that section of ice. This project is helping researchers understand more about the effects of climate, since sea ice thickness is one of the most critical indicators of global climate change.
“Satellites have successfully observed the variability and change in sea ice ‘extent’ occurring at both poles over the last 30 odd years, but changes to sea ice ‘thickness’, and therefore overall volume, is challenging due to the complex nature of sea ice structure and its dynamic behavior,” says Guy Williams, the lead researcher for the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems’ Undersea Ice Project.
The underwater robot is able to take in-situ measurements of sea ice thickness, something that was constrained to ship-based observations and manual drill lines in the past. Ship-based and manual drilling observations are often limited because of the logistic and seasonal considerations. With the AUVs, floe-scale measurements totaling over 1.5 million square feet of under-ice topography have been taken, providing new information regarding ice draft and deformation that far exceeds traditional data sets.
“The retrieval of floe-scale, 3D topography ‘under’ the ice together with video images has taken us to the ‘dark side of the moon’ in terms of sea ice observations – something that simply wasn’t possible before,” Williams concludes.
Ocean exploration for everyone
Most underwater exploration projects require significant funding to launch, but entrepreneurs Eric Stackpole and David Lang have built an open source, do-it-yourself underwater robot called OpenROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) to make underwater exploration easy and affordable.
In a video, Stackpole explains, “The allure of the ocean is that it is right there…and the ocean is three-dimensional, so 95 percent of where life can exist on this planet has never been explored.”
The beauty of the OpenROV is that is looks like it could be a child’s remote-controlled toy, but has true scientific value. Oceanographers who are accustomed to expensive technical equipment are enthusiastic about this type of robot, which only costs $849, and believe it can help further their research.
The OpenROV was initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $111,000 on a $20,000 goal. Venture capitalist True Ventures added $1.3 million to the funding, enabling the company to deliver more than 500 kits since 2012.
“It shouldn’t take a research grant to do exploration, it should take curiosity – and that’s what we’re all about,” states Stackpole. “If we can crowdsourced exploration, there’s a lot of good that can come from that.”
Underwater robots continue to be engineered with greater features and capabilities, as well as with accessibility and entry-level pricing. These advances will aid scientists on their diverse missions to further explore the Earth’s oceans.
Photo courtesy of Coralbots