Robot scores top marks in swim test

A strange turtle-like creature has been sighted off the coast of Holetown, Barbados. The creature swims, walks and manoeuvres through the undersea depths with great dexterity and can navigate complex coral reefs. Known as AQUA, it is a new undersea robot that is native to Canada. It possesses the latest in 3-D computer vision and robotics technology.

Right: AQUA swims in the warm waters off the coast of Holetown, Barbados

AQUA is the result of a unique collaborative effort by a Canadian research team led by York computer science Professor Michael Jenkin. Jenkin’s area of expertise is the robot’s complex vision system. The project also involves Professors Martin Buehler and Gregory Dudek from McGill University’s Centre for Intelligent Machines in Montreal, and Professor Evangelos Milios from Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also part of the AQUA team are crews of technicians and researchers. The York contingent includes Andrew Hogue and Arlene Ripsman, two York University graduate students in computer science, and researcher Jim Zacher of York’s Centre for Vision Research.


Above: York Professor Michael Jenkin (left) with McGill Professor Gregory Dudek

Two years in the making, AQUA is designed to swim, dive and walk at the bottom of the sea and is one of the most multifaceted robotic inventions ever created. It utilizes more complex features than those possessed by the Mars rover robots. AQUA measures just 60 cm long and has six remote-controlled legs that look like flippers and move independently of each other. Its gait can change and strengthen when it encounters strong currents or changing water depth or wave conditions. This makes the robot very nimble.

An underwater “rover” of sorts, AQUA can swim and then walk underwater, flip sideways and then return to its original position. The robot is fully amphibious and possesses a complex trinocular vision system that gives it the ability to see and digitally map its surroundings in three dimensions.

Earlier in January in the balmy waters at McGill University’s Bellairs Marine Research Institute located in St. James, Barbados, AQUA underwent its first ocean test.

Right: AQUA swims sideways

“The undersea test went very well and everything worked as it was supposed to do,” said Jenkin. “What is so exciting is the robot’s trinocular vision system and its ability to move around difficult conditions has really been proven. The robot can walk on the ground, on the sea floor or swim through the water. With its vision system, it can take pictures of the world around it and recognize familiar places and remember the shape of objects it is looking at.”

AQUA has an important ‘green’ application with its ability to do an ongoing survey and inspect coral reefs for damage. “That is important when you consider that one third of the ocean’s coral reefs are endangered,” explained Jenkin. “With AQUA, we can visit a reef, build a volumetric model of the reef and then revisit the reef again after several months have passed. We can then compare the two models to see if there are any changes. It will also have a valuable application in the harsher Great Lake environments because we can measure the zebra mussel population and see how that population is changing.”

The underwater robot will also go into areas deemed too hazardous for humans. It can be put to work inspecting underwater structures and shipwrecks. Its ability to walk or swim beneath the water shows great potential for survey and inspection tasks along the shallow shores of lakes or oceans.


Above: York PhD candidate Andrew Hogue monitors AQUA’s water test

Jenkin is enthusiastic about the capability the trinocular vision system has demonstrated to map and remember the most minute detail of the undersea environment. “While these visual tasks seem simple to humans, they represent the cutting edge for robot systems and are, in fact, beyond the reach of other robots such as the recent crop of Mars exploration vehicles,” he said. “The trinocular vision system uses three separate cameras to build a 3-D model, it can also remember where and how it has moved.”

The next phase of the project will involve testing AQUA’s capabilities in the colder fresh waters of the Lake of Bays in Muskoka this summer. The researchers will then complete final testing next January at Bellairs. “We decided to do the testing of AQUA at Bellairs because the tropical climate makes it possible to do research four hours a day standing waist deep in water,” said Jenkin. “When you work in lakes in the north you require a dry suit and with the risk of hypothermia, you can’t spend hours in the water. That adds a whole level of complexity to the project. Even in Barbados, the people standing in water in just shirt and shorts are at risk of heat stroke. I will say though that it has been a nice perk to be in the warm weather!”

Federally funded by the Network of Centres of Excellence Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS), the project is also supported by NSERC, the Canadian Space Agency and Brampton-based MD Robotics.

Photographs of the trials can be viewed here.