OceanOneK looks like a human diver from the front, with arms, hands and eyes with 3D vision, capturing the underwater world in full color.
The back of the robot is equipped with computers and eight multi-directional thrusters that help it carefully maneuver the sites of fragile sunken ships.
When an operator on the ocean surface uses commands to steer OceanOneK, the robot’s haptic (touch-based) feedback system causes the person to feel the resistance of the water as well as the contours of artifacts.
OceanOneK’s realistic visual and tactile capabilities are enough to make people feel like they’re diving into the deep – without the dangers or immense underwater pressure that a human diver would experience.
Stanford University roboticist Osama Khatib and his students teamed up with deep sea archaeologists and began sending the robot diving in September. The team just completed another underwater expedition in July.
So far, OceanOneK has explored a sunken Beechcraft Baron F-GDPV aircraft, an Italian steamer Le Francesco Crispi, a 2nd century Roman ship off Corsica, a WWII P-38 Lightning aircraft and a submarine called Le Protée.
The Crispi lies approximately 1,640 feet (500 meters) below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.
“You get really close to this amazing structure, and something amazing happens when you touch it: you actually feel it,” said Khatib, Weichai Professor at Stanford’s School of Engineering and director of the Stanford Robotics Lab.
“I had never experienced anything like this in my life. I can say that it was me who touched the Crispi at 500 (meters). And I did it – I touched it, I touched it felt.”
OceanOneK could be just the start of a future where robots take on underwater exploration too dangerous for humans and help us see the oceans in a whole new way.
Creation of an underwater robot
The challenge in creating OceanOneK and its predecessor, OceanOne, was to build a robot that could withstand an underwater environment and the immense pressure at different depths, Khatib said.
The robot retrieved a grapefruit-sized vase, and Khatib felt the sensations in his hands as OceanOne touched the vase before placing it in a retrieval basket.
The idea for OceanOne came from a desire to study the coral reefs of the Red Sea at depths beyond the normal range for divers. The Stanford team wanted to create something as close to a human diver as possible, incorporating artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and haptic feedback.
The robot is about 1.5 meters long and its brain can register how carefully it has to handle an object without breaking it, such as coral or sea-weathered artifacts. An operator can control the bot, but it is equipped with sensors and loaded with algorithms so it can operate autonomously and avoid collisions.
While OceanOne was designed to reach maximum depths of 656 feet (200 meters), researchers had a new goal: 1 kilometer (0.62 miles), hence the new name OceanOneK.
The team changed the robot’s body using a special foam that includes glass microspheres to increase buoyancy and combat pressures of 1,000 meters, more than 100 times what humans experience at sea level.
The researchers upgraded the robot’s arms with an oil-and-spring mechanism that prevents compression as it descends to the depths of the ocean. OceanOneK also has two new hand types and increased arm and head movement.
The project comes with challenges it hasn’t seen in any other system, said Wesley Guo, a doctoral student at Stanford’s School of Engineering. “It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to make these solutions work.”
The team used the Stanford Leisure Pool to test the robot and perform experiments, such as carrying a video camera on a pole and collecting objects. Then came the ultimate test for OceanOneK.
A Mediterranean tour that began in 2021 saw OceanOneK dive to these successive depths: 406 feet (124 meters) to the submarine, 1,095 feet (334 meters) to the remains of the Roman ship and finally 0.5 miles (852 meters) to prove he has the ability to dive nearly 1 kilometer. But it was not without problems.
Guo and another Stanford doctoral student, Adrian Piedra, had to fix one of the robot’s disabled arms to the deck of their boat at night during a storm.
“For me, the robot has been in the making for eight years,” Piedra said. “You have to understand how every part of this robot works – what are all the things that can go wrong, and things always go wrong. So it’s always like a puzzle. Being able to dive deep into the ocean and explore wrecks that have never been seen so close is very rewarding.”
During OceanOneK’s deep dive in February, team members discovered that the robot could not ascend when they stopped for a thruster check. The floats on the communication line and the power line had collapsed, causing the line to pile up on top of the robot.
They managed to take over and OceanOneK’s descent was a success. He laid a commemorative marker on the seabed which reads: “A robot’s first contact with the deep seabed / A vast new world for humans to explore”.
Khatib, a computer science teacher, called the experience “an incredible journey”. “It’s the first time a robot has been able to go to such depth, interact with the environment and allow the human operator to feel that environment,” he said.
In July, the team revisited the Roman ship and the Crispi. While the former has all but disappeared, its cargo remains strewn across the seabed, Khatib said. At the site of the Roman ship, OceanOneK managed to collect antique vases and oil lamps, which still bear the name of their maker.
The robot carefully placed a boom camera inside the Crispi’s fractured hull to capture video of corals and rust formations as bacteria feast on the ship’s iron.
“We go to France for the expedition, and there, surrounded by a much larger team, coming from very diverse backgrounds, you realize that the piece of this robot that you worked on at Stanford is in is part of something much bigger,” Piedra said.
“You get a sense of how important that is, how new and important diving is, and what that means for science in general.”
A promising future
The project born from an idea in 2014 has a long future of planned expeditions to lost underwater cities, coral reefs and deep wrecks. OceanOneK’s innovations also lay the foundation for safer underwater engineering projects such as repairing ships, piers and pipelines.
An upcoming mission will explore a sunken steamer in Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia.
But Khatib and his team have even bigger dreams for the project: space.
Khatib said the European Space Agency has shown interest in the robot. A haptic device aboard the International Space Station would allow astronauts to interact with the robot.
“They can interact with the robot deep in the water,” Khatib said, “and that would be amazing because it would simulate the task of doing this on another planet or another moon.”