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Wireless controller guides robot under water

October 05, 2010 // Nicolas Mokhoff

Wireless controller guides robot under water

York University researchers have designed and built a waterproof controller enabling an underwater robot to go "wireless". Aqua, the Canadian built and designed robot, can be controlled wirelessly using a waterproof tablet built at York.


While underwater, divers can program the tablet to display tags onscreen, similar to bar codes read by smart phones. The robot’s on-board camera then scans these two-dimensional tags to receive and carry out commands.

Aqua is a small and nimble amphibious, otter-like robot with flippers rather than propellers that was designed for intricate data collection from shipwrecks and reefs.

The robot is a joint project of York, McGill and Dalhousie universities.

Cutting the cord on underwater robots has been a longstanding challenge for scientists; water interferes with radio signals, hindering traditional wireless communication via modem. Tethered communication is cumbersome and can create safety issues for divers.

"Having a robot tethered to a vehicle above water creates a scenario where communication between the diver, robot, and surface operator becomes quite complicated," said Michael Jenkin, professor in Toronto-based York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, in a statement.

“Investigating a shipwreck, for example, is a very delicate operation and the diver and robot need to be able to react quickly to changes in the environment. An error or a lag in communication could be dangerous," Jenkin said.

Jenkin and his team at York’s Center for Vision Research, including the paper’s lead author, MSc student Bart Verzijlenberg, constructing the AquaTable prototype that is watertight to a depth of 60 feet. Aluminum housing with a clear acrylic cover protects the tablet computer, which can be controlled by a diver using toggle-switches and on-screen prompts.

In the past, divers have used laminated flashcards to visually communicate with robots while underwater. However, these limit the diver to a preset sequence of commands.

Jenkin and Verzijlenberg’s paper will be presented at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Taiwan.

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