In the autumn of 1664, Louis XIV of France, also known as the Sun King, was expecting his flagship vessel La Lune to return to French shores from its latest expedition to North Africa. But the ship was in bad shape when it came to port in Toulon, and despite some slapdash repairs, it collapsed and sunk offshore on November 6, resulting in the deaths of over 700 passengers.
Embarrassed by the debacle, Louis downplayed the tragedy, and eventually La Lune and its victims receded from living memory. But you know what the Sun King didn't count on? The fact that some 352 years later, a badass humanoid aquanaut robot named OceanOne would dive down to La Lune to shine a light on the long-lost wreckage.
Designed and built by roboticist Oussama Khatib and his team at Stanford University, OceanOne is the first underwater robot capable of bimanual dexterous manipulation, meaning it can grasp and hold stuff with its hands, just like a human. As an added futurist bonus, the robot is piloted by a sophisticated guidance system that allows researchers to virtually guide its motions with their own physical movements, safely above water.
Robot diver extraordinaire. Video: Stanford/YouTube
"OceanOne will be your avatar," Khatib said in a statement. "The intent here is to have a human diving virtually, to put the human out of harm's way. Having a machine that has human characteristics that can project the human diver's embodiment at depth is going to be amazing."
The recent dive down to La Lune, which is submerged 100 meters (328 feet) under the Mediterranean, was OceanOne's maiden voyage, and it was a smashing success. The robot was able to carefully extricate artifacts from the wreck that had not been touched for centuries, and return them to the surface for study.
In the future, Khatib hopes to build a fleet of these artificial aquanauts, for deployment on projects that require a human touch without risking a human life. This could mean everything from further shipwreck exploration, to deep-sea mining, to underwater emergencies, to coral reef conservation.
"We connect the human to the robot in very intuitive and meaningful way," he said. "The two bring together an amazing synergy. The human and robot can do things in areas too dangerous for a human, while the human is still there."