De La Salle UniversityWhat can robots do underwater?

What can robots do underwater?


De La Salle University faculty and students are developing underwater robots that can be used for scanning corals and marine life, as well as for surveillance and disaster response operations.

Robots, initially created to ease the burden of labor on people, can now be used to replace humans in high-risk environments. A research project from De La Salle University Manufacturing Engineering Management (MEM) and Electronics Communication Engineering (ECE) Departments looks into the application of robotics in underwater locations. 

The DLSU research on underwater robots began in 2009 when MEM Full Professor Dr. Elmer Dadios and a team of undergraduate students developed an autonomous underwater robot. The robot is controlled from a remote location on land. “This robot has the capability of looking below the surface of the water,” Dadios shares. “It has a camera. It can move and swim underwater.”

While the project sounds deceptively simple, the team had to face the complexity of robotics combined with the challenges of creating a machine that worked underwater. The dynamics of the machine’s motions was a very complicated aspect of the project.  

He points out, “The robot needs to make omnidirectional motions. This means that it should be able to go up, down, straight, and so on. Controlling these motions is difficult and designing where the motors of the robot should be located is very important. The weight and center of gravity should also be right, in order  or the robot to function properly. And since there are electronic sparks in the mechanisms of such machines, you must make sure that they are well-contained.” 

The first underwater robot developed by the team was used for marine observation. “We have researchers who study corals. The robot helps in identifying different types of corals and marine life. We are successful in this regard. The camera attached to the robot captures videos that are immediately transmitted to a remote site on the surface,” he says.

Aside from observing marine life, the underwater robots can be used for commercial purposes as well. Dadios explains, “An underwater robot can help in monitoring fish ponds. For example, a robot can monitor the best time for feeding fish.

It can also help in computing how much feed is actually needed in order to limit wastage.”   

Since it started in 2009, the underwater robot project has taken a more ambitious direction. The project has since expanded: from monitoring marine life, the team is now looking into how underwater robots can replace human beings for underwater surveillance during natural disasters or rescue operations. 

 To date, his graduate research team composed of PhD and Master students from the ECE Department has developed  a group of underwater robots that can mimic the behavior of a swarm. Swarm intelligence is based on the collective  behavior of social insects and animals such as ants and bees. “We developed five robots that could swim underwater  together. They have intelligence that enables them to move and monitor each other.” A robot, which is part of the swarm, functions as a physical carrier of data. It then passes on the information to other members of the swarm.  

Dadios and his team developed computational intelligence algorithms that enable the robots to behave in this manner.

A particular algorithm that was used is based on the architecture of the human brain and how it comes up with learning processes. 

A problem these robots can address is communication underwater. “I haven’t encountered literature in which humans can directly communicate underwater aside from using sign language. Submarines use sonar. But there are problems in using sonar because a vast distance is needed in order for it to work. If we can develop machines that can communicate with each other even in short distances, that would be really helpful in many ways.” 

He adds that this would be beneficial in surveillance and disaster response operations. “Our ultimate goal is to come up with an effective mechanism for communication underwater through the swarm behavior of these robots.”

 Dr. Elmer Dadios is full professor of the DLSU Manufacturing Engineering Management.

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