The water-resistance needed is not comparable to how a drone flying in the air must be able to endure rain. There is pressure underwater, and if at all possible, the water will leak in. Kruusmaa says there’s no need for witchcraft, but the solutions are going to cost money. There is another difficult aspect – electromagnetic waves cannot travel through water very well. Whether that’s Wi-Fi, radio waves or GPS. If you want to communicate with the robot, you can only do so with a cable. However, that means the robot cannot go too far.
“If you remove the cable, then the robot is 100% autonomous,” says Kruusmaa. “You must build a robot that can be completely autonomous. It must be able to move from one place to another without GPS coordinates and maps.”
Even operating a cable-connected robot is not that easy. The user interface needs to be good. You might not even see the drone once you place it underwater. Operating this is not intuitive and it takes a long time to get used to.
Collaboration with two top scientists
Kruusmaa’s research team works closely together with two of EXCITE’s principal investigator. They’re working alongside Ülle Kotta on the topic of fault tolerant control algorithms. Kruusmaa states that Kotta brings the base knowledge as a mathematician, while Kruusmaa’s research team brings the applicational element. “We have the robots and the know-how regarding building and testing. Ülle has the knowledge in describing them mathematically and proving that they work as discussed,” she explains.
The second project is a collaboration with Jaan Raik, who is a professor of fault tolerant systems. Together, they rack their brains on the topic of underwater sensors and sensor networks that have to collect data underwater. This collaboration must result in a software system that understands when a sensor is not functioning properly. It has to detect errors. “We need to simulate it so that the data received using sensor networks is credible. Additionally, we need to understand when the sensor network is so poor that it no longer functions,” Kruusmaa illustrates.
Underwater robots will drastically change things
We now get into the practical uses of these types of robots. On the one hand, any type of underwater work requiring manpower is often both expensive and dangerous. Underwater welders make a lot of money, as do divers who dive in dangerous locations. The hazardous nature of this type of work is a factor.
But there are places even a professional and experienced diver would never go. For example, the dangerous and unknown interiors of shipwrecks or locations residing under port structures. If there is a significant threat to human life, they will not go. The same issue occurs with jobs that need someone to traverse long distances or go extremely deep underwater. An underwater robot can traverse from the West Coast of Scotland to Newfoundland, all the while collecting data. A human is not able to accomplish that. “They never will be,” says Kruusmaa. “There is no use in making a person do such work.” Therefore, underwater robots could be used for a lot of work already being done underwater, while adding even more possibilities.
For example, these robots could be used for environmental monitoring. They could continuously monitor our coastal waters – the quantity of microplastics, the proliferation of cyanobacteria, fish spawning grounds and pollution.
We could even talk about using them to look out for criminal activity. The underwater robot could successfully scope out all the ships coming into a port to ensure that drug dealers have not attached any packages to the underwater sections of them. It would be time-consuming and expensive for a diver to perform such a task. The robot would be able to perform this on every ship that arrives at the port.
“Therefore, it can be said that while people won’t feel the benefits of underwater robots in their own wallets, the world would indirectly become a better and safer place,” believes Kruusmaa.