Coral reefs, SCUBA divers, and offshore oil companies may all have a new buddy at some point in the future, thanks to a new Canadian-developed undersea robot named Aqua.

Aqua, which can swim through water as well as walk on the surface of an ocean floor, was developed by a team of researchers

at York, McGill, and Dalhousie Universities in conjunction with MD Robotics and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The project, which is still under development, is funded by the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) as part of the federal Network of Centres of Excellence program (NCE), and will continue to be supported through March of 2005.

Aqua’s combined walking and swimming capabilities, along with sophisticated 3D-camera and modeling technologies, make it unique in the field of underwater robotics, said Anthony Eyton, director of IRIS and CEO of Precarn Inc., who manages IRIS.

“”Having a robot swim underwater is really quite extraordinary, and they are challenged by all sorts of very difficult conditions,”” he said. “”If they can make it work effectively to the point that it can be commercial, they will have created great intellectual property that can be incorporated into all sorts of robots.””

The robot was recently tested underwater at the Bellairs Research Institute in climatically hospitable Barbados; the team will test AQUA in Canada’s colder, and more algae-filled lakes, later this year.

Project leader Michael Jenkin of York University said the primary goals are that of research and engineering, and “”to try to answer questions related to sensing and reasoning and navigation and locomotion underwater.””

The robot moves via six flippers that can also act as legs, and includes a visual sensor module and an acoustic sensor module. The visual sensor can construct 3D models of everything it sees, and communicates it back to a ground (or ship-based) control station via a cable. The robot’s body itself is similarly tethered.

“”There are no real reasons why you couldn’t do away with the cable, but that’s not likely to happen in the current project for practical reasons. In the long term we’d like to have it be completely autonomous,”” explained Jenkin.

“”This will have applications of that nature. But because they’re working with a 3D-camera system that’s incorporated into this robot, there’s all sorts of other potential applications that could be used by land-based robots,”” Eyton said.

Jenkin noted the project’s high potential for use in industry, including such applications as being able to examine ships’ hulls for damage or for reasons of national security, to help out SCUBA divers or to assist in the repair of offshore oil platforms.

One of the more “”esoteric”” applications Jenkin foresees Aqua’s research contributing to would be in free-flying outer space vehicles, which would be of particular interest to research partners MD Robotics and the CSA.

“”To work in space you have to have devices that move in three positional and three rotational degrees of freedom, and that’s exactly what you have underwater. The famous robots in space are arms, and a free-flying robot is something that really doesn’t exist yet,”” said Jenkin.

Another use might be to investigate coral reefs.

“”One of the great things of technology like this is you could send in a robot of this nature to take a videoscan and collect data, say, of a particular section of coral reef, and it would have its coordinates matched to the video that was taken,”” he said. User could then send the robot into the very same site with the exact same coordinates five years later to see what’s happening, and you could monitor the level of deterioration and the rate of deterioration said Eyton.

“”It has application, and it has, I think, a real market,”” Eyton added.

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