Robot navigation technology – which helped NASA’s persistence land on Mars – will explore the deep ocean
Terrain-related navigation helped Endurance land – and fly Ingenuity – autonomously on Mars. Now is the time to test a similar system while exploring another frontier.
On May 14, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship Okeanos Explorer took off from Port Canaveral, Florida for a two-week expedition led by NOAA Ocean Exploration, featuring the technology demonstration of an autonomous underwater vehicle.
This new class of underwater robots, called Orpheus, will demonstrate a system that allows it to navigate and identify interesting scientific features on the sea floor.
Terrain-related navigation was instrumental in helping NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Mars rover make its accurate landing on the Red Planet on Feb.18. The system enabled the descending robot to visually map the Martian landscape, identify hazards, and then choose a safe place to land without human assistance.
Similarly, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter uses a vision-based navigation system to track surface features on the ground in flight to estimate its movements across the surface of Mars.
Developed by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, an evolution of the vision-based navigation used on Mars will now undergo a test drive a little closer to home: off the US east coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
Large, powerful location locating equipment such as sonar would normally be required to navigate the dark and often murky waters near the sea floor.
Using an energy-efficient system of cameras and lights, along with advanced software, Orpheus is an order of magnitude lighter than most deep-sea submersibles.
Orpheus is smaller than a quad and weighs about 250 pounds. It is designed to be manoeuvrable, easy to use and rugged while exploring depths inaccessible to most vehicles.
Designed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in collaboration with JPL, Orpheus can work untethered virtually anywhere in the ocean, including the most extreme depths.
Ultimately, the project team hopes to see a swarm of these underwater robots work as a team to build 3-D maps of the expanses of the unexplored ocean floor in the hadal zone – areas deeper than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). But before the robot can explore these depths, it must first be put to the test in shallower water.
Diving into the future
“This technical demo will be used to collect data to demonstrate the viability of terrain-related navigation in the ocean and to show how multiple robots will work together in extreme environments,” said Russell Smith, mechanical engineer robotics at JPL.
“These tests will put us on track to initiate future dives in the hadal zone and intelligently search for exciting areas of high biological activity.
Orpheus’ version of vision-based navigation is called visual-inertial odometry or xVIO, and it works using a system of advanced cameras and pattern recognition software, along with instruments that can accurately measure orientation and movement. As Orpheus travels across the sea floor, xVIO identifies features – such as rocks, shells, and coral – beneath the vehicle.
Just like memorizing landmarks on a road trip, xVIO will create 3D maps using these features as waypoints to help navigate it. But this system is more than just a means of preventing the underwater robot from getting lost.
The high-resolution maps that xVIO creates are stored in memory so that when Orpheus returns to the area, it will recognize the unique distribution of its features and use it as a starting point to expand its exploration.
And when working with robot friends, maps can be shared, cross-referenced and developed to quickly identify areas of scientific interest. “In the future, some of the most extreme ocean environments will be within our reach.
From deep ocean trenches to hydrothermal vents, there are many new destinations we’ll explore, ”said Andy Klesh, also a systems engineer at JPL. “By staying small, we’ve developed a new, simplified tool for ocean scientists – one that will directly benefit NASA as an analog system for autonomous space exploration.
” But Klesh noted another virtue of the collaboration between NASA and organizations such as WHOI and NOAA, with their extensive oceanographic expertise:
the technologies being developed to explore Earth’s oceans with smart, small and robust autonomous underwater vehicles could eventually are used to explore the oceans on other worlds.
Terrestrial analogues are often used as environmental influences for other locations in the solar system. For example, the moon of Jupiter, Europa, possesses an underground ocean that can provide favorable conditions for life.
“At hadal depths on Earth, the pressure is roughly equal to the bottom of Europe’s subterranean ocean, which is believed to be perhaps 50 miles deep,” said Tim Shank, the biologist who runs the Hadal Exploration (HADEX) program.
the WHO. “It is profound to think that this expedition could be the springboard for new discoveries about our own planet, including answering that most fundamental question:
is life unique to Earth, or are there other places beyond this pale blue dot? life could have originated?But before we can explore Europe or any other ocean world, we need to understand our own home better. “