A hybrid remotely operated vehicle – developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts – has taken the first automated sample performed by a robotic arm in the ocean.
An team of marine scientists used one of WHOI’s underwater robots, called Nereid Under Ice, to explore Kolumbo volcano – an active submarine volcano off the island Santorini in Greece.
“For a subsea vehicle to take a sample without a pilot driving it is a huge step forward,” says Rich Camilli, an associate scientist at WHOI who leads the development of automation technology on behalf of NASA's Planetary Science and Technology research program.
“One of the project’s goals was to toss out the joystick – and we were able to do just that,” he says.
"As with self-driving cars, handing the wheel over to a computer algorithm can be quite unsettling, and the same goes for ocean robots – especially when they need to work in tricky and hazardous environments."
Camilli's research expedition aims to learn about life in the harsh, chemical-laden environment of submarine volcanoes, and explore the extent to which scientists can hand over control to subsea robots, and allow them to explore without any human intervention.
Nereid Under Ice was equipped with AI-based automated planning software that allowed it to decide which sites it should visit within the volcano and then take autonomously take samples.
Gideon Billings, a student from the University of Michigan, had the honour of using his code to collect the very first automated sample – a patch of sediment from Kolumbo’s mineral-rich sea floor.
He issued a command to the autonomous manipulator and, moments later, a slurp-sample hose attached to the robotic arm extended down to the precise sample location and sucked up the dirt.
Billings says this level of automation will be important for NASA as they develop technologies to explore ocean worlds beyond our solar system.
“If we have this grand vision of sending robots to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, they will need to work independently like this and without the assistance of a pilot,” he says.
The next stage of the team’s work is to train ocean robots to see like ROV pilots using ‘gaze tracking’ technology, and building a robust human-language interface so scientists can talk directly to the sea robots without a pilot go-between.
“One day, there will be a network of cognitive robots swimming through the ocean, working cooperatively with shared intelligence – just like bees in a hive,” says Camilli.