Orpheus submersible robot will help explore deep oceans on Earth and beyond

A technology originally designed for robots dedicated to exploring Mars has now been used successfully to achieve a new type of underwater robot that is much more efficient than traditionally designed ones.

NASA has partnered with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), an organization that explores the depths of the oceans, to develop an Orpheus submersible robot that can explore the deep ocean autonomously. The new deep-sea exploration technology that could one day search for life under the oceans on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn will be put to the test during a two-week demonstration expedition aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship. This new class of submersible robots will showcase a system that will help it find its way and identify interesting scientific features on the seafloor.

Orpheus uses vision-based navigation software developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that works in a similar way to how the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter navigates during flight. The terrain-relative navigation also helped the Perseverance Mars rover make its precision touch down on the Red Planet in February this year. The system allowed the rover to visually map the Martian landscape, identify hazards and choose a safe place to land without human assistance.

Orpheus submersible robot uses NASA navigation tech to explore deep ocean.
The submersible can explore the most extreme depths of the ocean, creating 3D maps of the seafloor. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Smaller than a quad bike and weighing about 550 pounds (250 kg), Orpheus is actually lighter than similarly sized robots while also being rugged enough for deep-sea exploration, as well as easy to operate. The Orpheus can work untethered almost anywhere in the ocean, including the most extreme depths.

For now, it will test its low-power system of cameras and lights, along with advanced software in shallower waters. But, ultimately, the project team hopes to see a swarm of these underwater robots work as a team to build 3D maps of the vast regions of the unexplored ocean floor in the hadal zone – regions deeper than 20,000 feet (6,000 meters).

This tech demo will be used to gather data to demonstrate the viability of terrain-relative navigation in the ocean while also showing how multiple robots will operate together in extreme environments,” said Russell Smith, robotics mechanical engineer at JPL. “These tests will put us on track to start future dives into the hadal zone and intelligently seek out exciting regions of high biological activity.

The version of TRN aboard Orpheus is called visual-inertial odometry, or xVIO. As Orpheus travels over the seafloor, xVIO identifies objects along the way and uses them to create a 3D navigation map. The maps created are stored to memory so that when Orpheus returns to the area, it will recognize the unique distribution of the features and use them as a starting point to expand its exploration. The maps can be shared and cross-referenced with robot buddies to quickly identify areas of scientific interest.

The technologies being developed to explore Earth’s oceans with smart, small, and rugged autonomous underwater vehicles could ultimately be harnessed to explore the oceans on other worlds, such as the subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

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