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Robot swarms will explore the waterways of Venice

Forget the gondola – researchers have found a new way to see Venice. An international team of scientists is planning to explore the waterways beneath the historic city with swarms of autonomous underwater robots.

Dubbed “subCULTron,” the $4.55 million project would utilize 120–plus robots of three different types – the world’s largest autonomous underwater robot swarm to date – to explore the Venice Lagoon and its surrounding body of water.

“For robotics, Venice is a great field of application: the waters are murky, turbulent, there are a lot of obstacles underwater like cables, pipes and other sunken things, and also the channels themselves form a complex maze-like habitat,” project coordinator and University of Graz Professor Thomas Schmikl told “All of that is very fascinating for underwater roboticists as it requires the development of novel and sophisticated robots and algorithms for navigation, orientation and coordination to operate there,” he added.

Over the years, tourism, industry and climate changes have negatively affected the ecosystems of Venice and its buildings, where erosion is a rapidly–growing problem. By exploring and collecting data from Venetian channels, salt marshes, and a nearby mussel farm, the researchers are hoping to get a greater understanding of the environmental impact on the lagoon.

Related: Underwater robots function like schools of fish

The project consists of three different autonomous robots: “aFish” (Artificial Fish), “aMussels,” and “aPads,” with each type specializing in a different task. The aMussels (which mimic real mussels with a protective shell that can be opened and has a sophisticated reversible anchoring system) sit on the seabed after long periods of collecting data in the water, while the fast and agile aFish monitor the lagoon floor and hunt for targets. The latter also bridges communication between the aMussels and aPads (which float on the water like lily pads and send the collected data to scientists).

The ecological data collected include water information such as temperature, oxygen concentration, salinity, alkalinity, turbulence/currents, particle-density and turbidity, or cloudiness. The robots will also take photographs of fauna and flora to make density measures/estimates of organisms. That’s not to say the research project is going to be easy, as the dark, churning depths will provide a harsh environment for the robots.

“For robotics, and for swarm robotics in particular, there is the problem that almost all robot swarms work in clean, artificial areas – such as factories, pools, tanks, etc. – and robots that work in open nature (or within human society) are usually very short-running, expensive and mostly operating alone,” said Schmikl.

Related: U.S. Navy’s boat drones can swarm enemy attackers

One way the researchers are hoping to overcome this challenge is via the robots’ communication methods. Using bio–inspired algorithms influenced by honeybees, slime molds, and fish, the swarm will be aware of how each member of the group is functioning, while also having the ability to make decisions collectively. This is a crucial factor in the lagoon’s unpredictable depths, and makes the system resilient even if single robots shut down. Like the aforementioned natural swarms, the system will operate without a central unit of control.

“The long runtime – weeks – will demand for optimization of energy efficiency and also energy harvesting from the environment, again with some bio-inspired components,” Schmikl explained. “I think a swarm that can autonomously operate for weeks in Venice is a huge step towards a swarm that can autonomously run everywhere, be it remote ocean areas or even oceans on outer space planets or moons.”

The robots will also be cheaper and smaller than other current underwater robots, so if a few are lost they can be easily replaced. This is true for the aFish in particular, which must fit into Venice’s cramped underwater caves and pipelines.

“The openings will have to be large enough to allow the robot to get in,” Schmikl said. “We expect the robot to have a size (we are still in the design phase, so these are just estimates here) of approximately 50cm [20 inches] long and a thickness of 20cm [8 inches], maybe a bit slimmer.”

Live demonstrations of the subCULTron project are being held in small pool experiments at EXPO 2015 in Venice this week. Schmikl hopes to make initial test runs in Venetian channels and have fresh hardware prototypes by next year.

For him, this is the chance to live a lifelong dream. “Seeing those murky waters, I always wondered how it would look from underneath the surface. So it is also a bit of a wish that I had as a child that I can now fulfill,” he said.

by Walt Bonner

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