Measuring 1.5m in length and weighing 180kg, OceanOne is quite unusual for a remotely operated underwater vehicle. Described as a ‘robo-mermaid’, it has a head, two cameras for ‘eyes’ and a pair of fully articulated arms, complete with wrists and fingers. OceanOne acts as an underwater avatar, allowing people to feel like they’re diving to inaccessible depths while remaining safe and dry. A human pilot can see what the robot sees via stereoscopic cameras, and feel what it’s holding via sensors in the robot’s hands that transmit haptic feedback to a controller on the surface.
To a certain extent, OceanOne can even think for itself. Onboard processors analyse camera footage and adjust the thrusters in the robot’s tail to make sure it doesn’t bump into anything. If sensors detect an unavoidable upcoming collision, the robot braces its arms to cushion the impact.
Built by a team at Stanford University, OceanOne’s first mission, in April 2016, was to explore a 17th-Century shipwreck, La Lune, lying 100m deep in the Mediterranean. The humanoid robot carefully swam around the structure and gathered ancient artefacts without crushing them between its fingers.
The idea is that eventually the robo-mermaid will be able to perform other skilled tasks, such as examining fragile coral on reefs or operating machinery in places such as deep-sea mines and oil rigs.