The recent news of Stanford University’s OceanOne Robot’s successful salvage/recovery of artifacts from Louis XiV’s flagship came as quite the news to me.
Admittedly, I know very little about the robot, however it does warrant some thought and discussion as we consider the value of humans versus robotics within the field of ocean exploration. On one hand, one might argue that the robot offers little more than many of the very commonly used Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Today’s ROVs can do just about everything – at least everything that they are tooled up to do. This is the challenge in ROV tooling development – most systems are application specific, meaning that they are equipped to carry out a specific task and cannot deviate from that task without a substantial refit of tooling.That typically means resurfacing and then going back to work. But, what if the ROV doesn’t have the right tool in its shipboard toolbox?
On the other hand, one might argue that OceanOne’s adaptability via its ‘hands’ would permit use of a variety of underwater tools with little modification. This use of ‘hands’ will be what breaks open far more cost-effective deepwater science, and other working tasks. While the human hand is among the clear advantages of humans performing underwater work as opposed to robotic vehicles, humans come with the limitation of physiology. Vehicles such as submersibles and atmospheric diving suits protect the human, but offer little manual dexterity [without tooling not unlike ROV tooling]. Some combination of the human hand, protecting the human, and the human’s spatial awareness is the winning combination for the future – in my humble opinion anyway.
OceanOne tackles protecting the human in a unique way – through a virtual reality experience – essentially a robotic avatar. That’s an ambitious step, but certainly an interesting one. If the costs could be cut down significantly, this may cut its way into the niche market of the diver. Sad for us, however it will still be the trained diver that has the aptitude to skillfully navigate and work the robot’s personal space.
For now, I’m going to enjoy getting wet. There is so very much to continue to explore – and experience – and there remain several lifetimes of tools that can be put to work by people in environments that are right here at home, yet seem so very far away.