Deep sea terrains are one of the few places on Earth’s surface that humans have little sense of. A robot developed at Stanford, however, has been exploring sunken features of the Mediterranean — down to nearly 1 km — and given its operators that sense that they, too, are interacting with deep water destinations like sunken planes and ships.
OceanOneK is comprised of a humanoid head, torso, and arms, as well as a slimmer back half with eight multi-directional thrusters. The thrusters allow for careful maneuvering underwater, while the robot’s haptic feedback system and stereoscopic vision produce sensations that, according to Stanford roboticist Oussama Khatib, create incredibly realistic sensations. In this way, Khatib was able to experience the resistance of whatever and discern the shapes and colors of sunken historical relics, all from onboard the control ship above.
Video footage of the robot’s first Mediterranean expedition, which took place in late 2021 and early 2022, is available on Stanford’s YouTube channel, along with a discussion of the process by the research team. The mission had two essential purposes: to explore places no one has gone before and to prove that human interaction is possible in sites far removed from where people can operate. The crowning achievement among many noteworthy adventures in the bot’s multi-stop trips through the Mediterranean, however, was proof of functional autonomy at nearly 1,000 meters below the surface. It was with this that the originally dubbed OceanOne was dubbed the OceanOneK.
On its first trip, OceanOneK visited a World War II P-38 Lightning aircraft at about 40 m, and a submarine, Le Protée, at 124 m, then on toward sunken ships near Corsica and Cannes. Finally, the robot attempted a final dive to 852 m. After a worrisome moment during a pause for a thruster check — the robot remained functional, but flotations around communications and the power line connecting topside had collapsed, and slack had to be pulled in — OceanOneK completed the dive, leaving a commemorative marker on the seabed.
The trip to the 1 km mark occurred during the second expedition and after hours and hours of design, experimentation, and assembly, followed by debugging and trial and error in real-world conditions. To reach such a depth, improvements were made to the original OceanOne robot, including a body adapted with special foam made of glass microspheres to provide buoyancy while withstanding pressure and arms filled with an oil and spring mechanism that compresses the oil to match outside pressure in order to prevent collapse and protect electronic components.
Future expeditions are planned for OceanOneK throughout the world, including lost cities buried within deep lakes, coral reefs and further exploration of archeologically significant wrecks that humans have until now been unable to explore. Distancing humans physically from dangerous environments while still incorporating human skills, intuition, and experience could fundamentally alter how we approach labor and the potential of remote work. Robotic “avatars” could be used to acquire materials, build infrastructure, and perform disaster prevention and recovery, whether the setting is deep in oceans and mines, high on mountain peaks, or in space.