July 2, 2009

An Autonomous Robot For Underwater Intervention Tasks

Nowadays many underwater intervention tasks are performed using tele-operated robots. However, developing an autonomous robot capable of carrying out these tasks is a challenge that the scientific community has still to overcome in the field of underwater robotics. The successful completion of such a project would allow the economic and human resources involved in this sort of intervention to be reduced, since there would no longer be any need for support boats, umbilical cables or the ROV pilots in charge of tele-operating the vehicle under undoubtedly exhausting conditions. This would make it possible to carry out operations which are not feasible with tele-operated systems and which require a permanent connection to a support boat through an umbilical cable.

RAUVI: Reconfigurable AUV for intervention is a national project led by Professor Pedro Sanz which currently has around 40 researchers from three Spanish universities, i.e. Universitat Jaume I, in Castell³, and those of Girona and Illes Balears, working on it. Each university is responsible for a specific subproject. The Universitat de Girona is in charge of developing the navigation systems and the mechatronics for the underwater vehicle, which will be coupled to the manipulator robot prepared by the Universitat Jaume I. The Universitat de les Illes Balears is responsible for providing support in scheduling and offering guidance on the right steps to be taken in order to achieve the autonomous navigation of the robot, by using advanced techniques of computer vision.

More particularly, the group of eight researchers at the Universitat Jaume I, led by Professor Sanz, is now working on a subproject that has the long-term aim of designing an appropriate methodology to deal with underwater intervention autonomously through robotic manipulation, as well as on the research and the subsequent development of the technologies required to achieve this.

Researchers from the Universities of Girona and Illes Balears are highly experienced in the field of underwater robotics, the former in the area of autonomous systems and the latter in exploration techniques and navigation assistance through visual sensing. At the same time, the Universitat Jaume I will offer its two decades of experience in research at the highest level in the field of robotic manipulation. Although this is its first venture into the underwater scenario, the Universitat Jaume I is motivated by the challenge of developing a manipulator arm that is able to operate successfully in such a hostile environment.

At the moment, the groups from the Universities of Castell³ and Girona are working on the most critical part, i.e. the construction of the mechatronics, for both the underwater vehicle and the arm. In order to achieve this task, the researchers are in contact with companies from the sector to guarantee the success of this new development in mechatronics which is not available on today's market. Firstly they need to produce the low-level specifications of the whole mechatronics so they can design and implement a prototype of the arm and the vehicle, which will eventually be coupled together at the Underwater Robotics Research Centre at the Universitat de Girona some time during the year 2010.

One of the main problems that researchers face is watertightness, since they will need materials that are well suited for use in the marine environment and which also provide the required protection for materials that are used to carry out electronic or mechanical processes, but which cannot come into contact with water. According to Professor Sanz, research in this field is conducted on the frontiers of science because "if solving anything at an autonomous level is complicated, it becomes even more complex in an environment that is full of uncertainty, sometimes even chaotic, where there is little or no light because of the depth, and problems due to pressure or unexpected ocean currents arise all the time".

Although it is still too early to confirm what specific applications might be solved with this autonomous intervention system, some areas that could be improved with this project include, for example, tasks related to marine biology, where it could carry out routine practices such as collecting samples (rock, water or sand), or in rescue work, by assisting diving teams by lighting a certain zone or by helping with the use of certain tools.

The project is funded with 530 000 euros by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation included in the VI National R&D&I Plan 2008-2011.


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