Underwater robot autonomously gathers seabed samples
While underwater remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) certainly are useful, manually controlling the things via a joystick-equipped console can be quite a painstaking task. That's why researchers have now enabled one to autonomously gather samples from the ocean floor.
Led by associate scientist Rich Camilli, a team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) recently developed artificial intelligence-based automated planning software that's designed to work with ROVs. Last month, that technology was put to use on an existing WHOI vehicle known as Neried Under Ice (NUI)
As the ROV set about exploring the Kolumbo submarine volcano off the coast of the Greek island of Santorini, the new system allowed it to decide which sites to visit, and to then obtain samples when it reached those locations.
In what is described as a world-first, Gideon Billings – a guest student from the University of Michigan, who wrote the original code – remotely issued a command to NUI, which responded by using a slurp-sample hose on its manipulator arm to reach down and suck up seabed sediment from a precise location. Ordinarily, a human operator would have to control all aspects of such a task.
"For a vehicle to take a sample without a pilot driving it was a huge step forward," says Camilli. "One of our goals was to toss out the joystick, and we were able to do just that."
The system was developed through NASA's Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR) program, and it could indeed one day find use in the unmanned exploration of oceans on other planets. In the more immediate future, though, the team is working on a natural-language interface that would allow scientists to communicate directly with autonomous ROVs, along with a network that would let multiple ROVs work together as a collaborative fleet.