It has been two years since OceanOne, “the robotic mermaid,” first discovered the seventeenth century shipwreck La Lune, the prized frigate of King Louis XIV’s navy. Professor Oussama Khatib of Stanford, the inventor of the swimming humanoid, heralded in then a new age of subsea exploration. After the 100 meter dive labeled too dangerous for humans, Khatib, clutching his haptic controls, shared with Stanford News: “We connect the human to the robot in very intuitive and meaningful way. The human can provide intuition and expertise and cognitive abilities to the robot. The two bring together an amazing synergy. The human and robot can do things in areas too dangerous for a human, while the human is still there.”
Dives like Khatib’s are inspiring a new generation of underwater unmanned systems. At the AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL show earlier this month there were almost fifty companies promoting their capabilities to navigate the seas autonomously. The one innovation that stood over and above the 100,000 square foot exhibit hall was Houston Mechatronics (HMI) for its metamorphosing Aquanaut. Unlike most marine drones that just survey the water, Aquanaut performs manipulative tasks at depths too hazardous for human divers. According to its press release, “Aquanaut is a multipurpose subsea robot which employs a patented shape-shifting transformation from an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), removing the need for vessels and tethers.” A “shape-shifting” robot sounded too much like the next Transformer, so I interviewed Nic Radford, Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of HMI, earlier this week to learn more about the technology and its applications here on Earth and, quite possibly, beyond:
At NASA, we were primarily concerned with one major topic in robotics: something we called dexterous mobile manipulation in connectivity constrained environments. In spaceflight, communication to remote assets like robots can be fairly intermittent, slow, and lossy. Even the International Space Station in all of its modern networking glory still has Loss of Signal (LOS) events where ground controllers are in almost complete communication blackout. Spaceflight robotics forces you to think beyond umbilicals connected to robots and since nearly half of HMI’s 50 employees came from NASA, we are experts in this brand of supervised autonomy.
And what I see is a major opportunity to change the conversation in subsea robotics – and frankly I’m surprised how little ‘robotics’ there actually is. And just like space, remotely operating robots underwater involves dealing with major uncertainties in the robot’s action and optimizing the transfer of information from operator to the robot for action. This is practically an unexplored area in subsea robotics and one that will prove to be as instrumental as the introduction of the Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle ROV itself.
Communicating in space is easier than in the ocean, please explain how Aquanaut is controlled untethered.
As an overview, we communicate with Aquanaut via subsea acoustic modems – think dialup internet access circa 1994. We abstract the control of Aquanaut to a very high level, so that it can be operated with a mouse, not by a joystick. Some of these ideas are not new, just new in the subsea world. But what is very new is the 3D exteroception methods, data distillation techniques, and reconstruction methods for the UI, thereby endowing the operator with situational awareness to do her job. It’s worth noting we’re not talking about real autonomy here, just enough autonomy to be dangerous.
How did you chose subsea applications as your first use case, what void did you see in the marketplace that made you dedicate so much resources to this sector?
Developing robots for NASA’s missions afforded us an opportunity to tool ourselves with skills that we felt had tremendous commercial value and we chose to capitalize on that. Being in the energy capital of the world, we became aware of that industry desperately trying to find away to control costs through the use of robotics, and we quickly jumped at the chance to put those skills to work. The decision to focus on underwater robotics was motivated by two reasons that happen to light the way pretty brightly. First, like I said earlier, our particular skill that we had developed at NASA was centered around dexterous mobile manipulation in really crappy communication environments and there is really no better operational analogy than subsea. Secondly, through some robotic systems development projects and coupled with a careful market study, we realized that operating subsea ROVs offshore are horribly expensive and that the technology in that area hasn’t evolved since it was first introduced. So, like the startup we are, we decided to formally take on the giants in this industry, flip the ROV world over and redesign it with NASA-inspired command and control technology. ROV’s today are directly tele-operated from boats or platforms and require miles of tethers for communications and power. We never had extension cords in space. So we didn’t start with one when developing Aquanaut.
Who will be the first customers for Aquanaut?
For our commercial side, we are building a Robotics-As-A-Service business around operating Aquanaut for tasks that are currently performed by ROVs attached to vessels and drilling platforms. And we’ve garnered the attention of some fairly heavy hitters in venture funding from oil and gas that have recently invested $20 million in HMI that believe we can do it too. On the Department of Defense (DoD) side, the folks that perform the ‘service’ are typically wearing camouflage, so we’ll just gladly sell them our kit. And we’re getting good support from folks from the DoD to help accomplish this ambition.
When will Aquanaut be in the water and what are the deployment goals?
We are building 2 units this year, Unit A and Unit B. Yes, I know. Amazing names. Unit A hits the water at the end of June and Unit B, October. We will be testing round the clock and fixing her as she breaks and redesigning the broken bits. NASA R&D taught me how to manage challenging development teams and aggressive timelines and our team’s ambition, drive, expertise, and overall kick ass motivation is second to none.
Long term, do you see a family of Aquanaut’s, and do you think you will ever return to space missions?
Absolutely. There will be a family of this new class of vehicle called ‘Aquanaut.’ We are getting courted by anyone who’s anyone in every major subsea market from mining to aquaculture. I’m just trying to decide if they’ll be Autobots or Decepticons. As far as getting back to space, it was a career goal of mine to put the first robot footprints on Mars and maybe that day will come to pass.