This deep-sea haptic robot is helping scientists save ancient artifacts
More than 330 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, OceanOnea humanoid submersible developed by the Robotics Lab at Stanford University, approached its target: the Aleria, a 2nd-century Roman shipwreck that contained an ancient treasure. For a moment, the submarine hovered just above the seabed in silent darkness. A nearby smaller assistant robot readjusted its spotlight, illuminating the floor. Then OceanOne gently dug its fingers into the sand at the base of the wreck and began to feel.
“I see through robot eyes and touch through robot hands,” Osama Khatib, director of Stanford’s Robotics Lab, told The Daily Beast.
Carefully, the robot’s hands lightly combed the sand. He stopped, readjusted his grip, and dug up a small object in a brief puff of silt. Khatib brought it closer: an almost perfectly preserved oil lamp from the early Roman Empire.
“What’s important is that you have a very flexible hand and arm, that you can gently close your hand around the object and pick it up,” Khatib told The Daily Beast. “Then you’re not going to break it. There is no other arm like this for archaeology. It really is a new technology.
The core technology that Khatib refers to is haptic feedback. Sometimes called kinesthetic communication or 3D touch, haptic technology creates a tactile experience by applying forces, vibrations or movements to the user. And it helps scientists like Khatib explore new frontiers in their research.
The OceanOne expedition, which took place off Corsica in July 2022, was the longest and deepest haptics-testing underwater mission of its kind, reaching a depth of one kilometer. The project started in September 2021 with two sites near Marseille. The first was a World War II-era P-38 Lightning aircraft 40 meters underwater; the second was and a submarine, The Protée, resting at 124 meters deep. Since then, the OceanOne robot has been slowly diving towards deeper and deeper parts.
The team, made up of an international cadre of roboticists, marine biologists and underwater archaeologists, seeks to use the haptic robot to “explore places no one has yet visited and show that touch, vision and human interactivity can be brought to these sites”. far from where people can operate,” according to Stanford News.
All robots on the mission were controlled from the Alfred Merlin, a research vessel designed by Michel L’Hour when he was director of the French Department of Underwater Archeology (DRASSM).
“The archaeologist is a sort of surgeon of the past. Could one imagine a surgeon who would work without feeling what he touches? It’s the same for us.”
— Dr. Michel L’Hour
“For an archaeologist, the two absolutely essential senses are sight and touch,” L’Hour told The Daily Beast. “And it is always possible to do without sight when working in very dirty water. If we do not perceive this notion of touch, it is impossible to perceive if the object is fragile, if it is cracked, for example.
“Haptic hands are therefore absolutely essential,” said L’Hour. “The archaeologist is a sort of surgeon of the past. Could one imagine a surgeon who would work without feeling what he touches? It’s the same for us.
Inside of Alfred Merlin, Khatib wore special glasses that allowed him to move the robot’s head and see the underwater environment in 3D through the robot’s two eye cameras. He held the oil lamp and watched another assistant robot, piloted by the French Department of Underwater Archeology, glide past OceanOne. He hit an open container on the seabed. Khatib rotated OceanOne’s arms, lowered the artifact using haptic hands, and gently released the oil lamp into the container. Then the assistant robot closed the lid of the container and slowly began the 90-minute ascent to the surface.
OceanOne’s journey to Aleria brought back a total of four early Roman oil lamps and an immaculate ornate vase. “The oil lamps found on the Aleria the wreck bears extremely important inscriptions for dating the cargo and understanding the economic and historical environment of the site,” L’Hour said. “These are essential to understanding and dating the wreck Aleria and to understand where this wreck is located in the history of economic exchanges by sea during Roman times in the Mediterranean. Both L’Hour and Khatib confirmed that the artifacts could not have been saved without the help of such precise haptic feedback on the OceanOne.
After the Aleriathe team sailed to The Francesco Crispi, an Italian steamer sunk by a British torpedo in 1943. OceanOne had previously visited the crispi in February, but mechanical problems with one of the arms hampered the operation. One of the challenges the team faced was that the wreckage lies approximately 500 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean, deeper than OceanOne has ever been before.
“We had to rethink the electronics,” Khatib told The Daily Beast. “Oscillators at 1,000 meters of pressure will be destroyed. So we had to turn to solid-state oscillators and capacitors. »
Khatib and the Stanford team had to keep their arms light and dexterous, while defending the sensitive haptic electronics. So to fight against the immense pressure at the bottom of the crispithe team, in collaboration with Robotic Mekacreated a system for adapting internal and external pressure using oil in the arms of the robot.
“There’s a compensator that takes the water pressure and presses it into the tube, which keeps the oil at the same pressure inside as it is outside.” Khatib told The Daily Beast.
This time, OceanOne was able to fully explore the crispi. Using haptic hands, Khatib held a camera attached to a long rod. He then tilted it into small cracks in the boat to scan the interior for cracks and artifacts. In the process, the team discovered a new type of iron-oxidizing rust that had never been seen before.
Haptic technology not only helps us better control and explore our underwater environment. It is also used on the International Space Station. François Conti is the co-founder of Force Dimension, a Swiss haptic systems company. He is also an alumnus of Khatib at Stanford and worked on the development of the OceanOne project. Conti believes that in the future, haptic systems will allow us to build structures with robots on the moon.
“The idea is that now we can start working on the moon, we can have astronauts teleoperating these robots, as if they were there,” Conti told The Daily Beast. “So we’re seeing all kinds of areas where you realize the haptics are amazing, because now you can start fixing satellites remotely, running a robot on the moon.”
In November 2019, Force Dimension, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), delivered haptic interfaces to the ISS. Called Project METERON (Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network), it was tested by astronauts on the ISS to control ground robots in the Netherlands using haptic feedback. And finally, as Conti told The Daily Beast, “you can shake hands from Earth to space.”
While there’s no pressure, water, or gravity to contend with in space, haptic communications has its own set of challenges in outer orbit. The two biggest hurdles were speed and distance, Conti said. The ISS orbits the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, circling the globe completely every 90 minutes. It is also approximately 250 miles from sea level, compared to OceanOne, which submerged a third of a mile. So to account for speed and distance, Force Dimension teamed up with a “constellation of satellites to create an internet connection with Earth,” Conti explained. This way, the ISS would still be daisy-chained to a single point on Earth, while rapidly spinning around it.
The slightest lag in haptic feedback could make all the difference when dealing with fragile objects like artifacts and space equipment. But Conti and Khatib said their systems incorporate algorithms to mitigate delays.
Ultimately, whether it’s under 1000 pounds of pressure or floating in zero gravity, haptic feedback helps us better explore and restore our internal and external worlds. Humanity’s ability to harness haptics plays a pivotal role in advancing the ways we pilot ourselves in the future. Khatib expressed it well when he said, “When you touch, it’s complete. By touching something half a mile away, it becomes real.