Researchers at Stanford University have built a humanoid robot that can function underwater. Named ‘OceanOne’, the robot was conceived and built from the ground up combining robotics, artificial intelligence and haptic feedback systems, says the university, to study coral reefs deep in the Red Sea, far below the comfortable range of human divers.

OceanOne looks something like a robo-mermaid. Roughly five feet long from end to end, its torso features a head with stereoscopic vision that shows the pilot exactly what the robot sees, and two fully articulated arms. The “tail” section houses batteries, computers and eight multi-directional thrusters.

Each fully articulated wrist of OceanOne is fitted with force sensors that relay haptic feedback to the pilot’s controls, so the human can feel whether the robot is grasping something firm and heavy, or light and delicate. (Eventually, each finger is expected to be covered with tactile sensors.) The ‘bot’s brain also reads the data and makes sure that its hands keep a firm grip on objects, but that they don’t damage things by squeezing too tightly.

Sensors throughout the robot gauge current and turbulence, automatically activating the thrusters to keep the robot in place. As the body moves, motors adjust the arms to keep its hands steady as it works. Navigation relies on perception of the environment, from both sensors and cameras, and these data run through smart algorithms that help OceanOne avoid collisions. If it senses that its thrusters won’t slow it down quickly enough, it can brace for impact with its arms.

In addition to Stanford, the development of the robot was supported by Meka Robotics and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

[Image credit: Frederic Osada & Teddy Seguin/DRASSM]