Deep sea exploration — leave it to robots!

By Frederic Friedel

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Today we watched Mission Blue, a documentary about legendary oceanographer, marine biologist, environmentalist Sylvia Earle, and her campaign to create a global network of protected marine sanctuaries.

It is a very inspiring movie and you are guaranteed to fall in love with Sylvia, who has led a truly extraordinary life and is maddeningly pretty and well-spoken (she is now eighty). Watch Mission Blue, which is available on Netflix…

… or at least watch this two-minute trailer, in full-screen mode

About 49 minutes into the (full) film we see an atmospheric diving suit invented by Sylvia in 1969. It is a small one-person articulated submersible that allows a diver to explore great depths while maintaining an internal pressure of one atmosphere.

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Here’s how it was described at the time: “There is a new tool in the sea. It moves with the ponderous rhythms of a mechanical monster. But actually it is a new vehicle, a personal submersible. It can withstand water pressure to 2000 feet. Normally a diver making a six-hour dive to that depth would spend twenty days in decompression. A diver using JIM for six hours at 2000 feet can surface, open the hatch and walk away…”

Atmospheric diving suits have been around for more than a hundred years. Here are some early prototypes.

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The December 1914 issue of Popular Mechanics described a “diving suit for reaching extreme depths” (212 feet)

The suit pictured above was made of an aluminum alloy of great strength and had articulated joints. It weighed in at about 480 lb. and was designed to shielding the diver from the hydrostatic pressure of water at 200 feet, or the equalizing pressure of air as is the case in ordinary diving suits.

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A more advanced atmospheric suit introduced by Neufeldt-Kuhnke in 1923, described on The Rebreather site

Sylvia’s JIM suit was far more advanced, and we see her walking the ocean floor for two and a half hours, at 1,200 feet. But she wanted to go deeper — ultimately to 37,000 feet, the deepest parts of the ocean.

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Together with her husband (at the time) Sylvia developed the Deep Rover, which made it to the cover of the January 1985 issue of Popular Mechanics. It was an acrylic-bubble submersible that could take oceanographers and oil-rig technicians to depths of 3,200 feet, while maintaining sea-level pressure. The manipulators could lift 200 pounds apiece, and could handle delicate objects on the ocean floor. But it could not go as deep as Sylvia wanted — that was left for others to do.

In 1960 Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh had reached the floor of the Mariana Trench in the western North Pacific Ocean in a bathyscaphe, a free-diving self-propelled submersible. It is the deepest possible dive, 35,797 ft., and took them five hours. The bathyscaphe had no scientific equipment and no experiments were conducted; the mission’s purpose was merely to prove that the depth could be reached.

In 2012 James Cameron, the maker of Titanic, descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger, a submersible he had secretly built in Australia in partnership with the National Geographic Society and Rolex. Sylvia designed the manipulator arm that was on the Deepsea Challenger.

Now all of this is very exciting and deeply inspiring, but it shows us one thing clearly: it is incredibly difficult for human beings to survive at great depths without being encased in armoured suits or vehicles which greatly hamper their mobility (don’t ask me how whales do it down to almost 10,000 feet). So how do we proceed from here? The answer is the same as the one we will be giving in many different areas, like space and planetary exploration: leave it to robots. A mechanical deep sea explorer has no problem with breathing, with pressure (well, no insurmountable problems), energy or endurance. And they can be equipped with the finest cameras and sensors to record everything. Compare that to a human moving around in a cumbersome atmospheric suit peering through tiny visors, operating claws at the end of their hands. No, we were not meant to do this, we are not meant to be there.

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Someone who understands this perfectly is Oussama Khatib, a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University who has been doing seminal work in robotics, especially in robot motion, control, haptic interaction and human motion synthesis. With other words: he builds robots that look and behave like humans.

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Khatib’s group recently announced the launch of the first underwater robot capable of bimanual dextrous manipulation. It is a truly wonderful machine that has, on its maiden dive, recovered treasures from a flagship of King Louis XIV that sank 20 miles off the southern coast of France in 1664. Watch it in the following video report, which is just 2:45 min long and very enlightening. It gives you a feel for where we are headed.

The idea is to have a virtual diver, Professor Khatib explains, a human with the robot as his physical representation. The robot has bi-manual capabilities, stereo vision, and the most importantly: feedback. You can actually feel what the robot is doing while sitting up on the surface in the boat.

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No problems of breathing and pressure for the human, who can see and feel exactly what the robot is doing.

That is where dangerous exploration is headed: robots equipped with very high resolution virtual reality cameras, real-time sensory feedback, dexterity, the ability to swim, jump, fly, while the controller sits in a safe place, one that is comfortable for a creature made of flesh and blood, one that has very little tolerance for extremes.

Oussama Khatib’s team is building a robot of this kind that is intended for lunar exploration — which, I would like to venture, is not much harder than building one that explores the ocean bed. And after that? I suggest Europa, Titan and Enceladus, moons that harbour liquid water. There is the time lag to deal with, but by the time we are able to launch exploration robots to the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn they will be totally autonomous AI systems.

“We can think of it as a solution,” Khatib says, “where we physically extract the human from a dangerous area, and still be connected to a robot in very intuitive and meaningful ways. The human can provide the expertise, the cognitive abilities to the robot — the two bring together this amazing synergy.”

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A humanoid machine exploring the moon? That might be just one small step for a robot, but an important reorientation for mankind.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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