Canadian Students Build Robot



Cutline: McGill University graduate student Olivia Chiu and York University’s Jim Zacher hold AQUA at the Adventure Show held in Mississauga earlier this year.

AQUA, a new experimental underwater robot, can walk on the ocean floor, noiselessly swim amongst school fish unnoticed, and quietly crawl out the of the water and walk onto the beach when its mission is over. So stealthful is this 6-limbed robot that it almost went unnoticed when it made its Mississauga, Ontario debut at the February Adventure Show.
Built over a period of four years, AQUA is described as “an amphibious walking and swimming robot”. However, for visitors to the Adventure Show, AQUA looked like a safety deposit box with three flippers sticking out of each side.
“ This is the second generation of AQUA” said Jim Zacher, a York University graduate student. “ IT is the result of an on-going research study involving McGill, York University and Dalhousie universities. We started work on this project back in 2002. Over the past six years we have been combining the capabilities demonstrated by both insect and marine life, to make a robot that is comfortable in both the terrestrial and aquatic worlds.”
The 18 kg robot swims through the water powered by its six flippers. It is almost noiseless and swims freely amongst fish who don’t consider the slow moving aluminum box as a threat. It has already reached a depth of 43 metres on a shake-out trip to the Bahamas.
It has two cameras in front and one in the back. The images it sees are fed back to the surface by a thin fiber optic tether. A technician on the surface directs the robot through the water. As well the university students have programmed the robot to be able to “read” simple instructions printed on waterproof cards so that it need not be tethered to the surface to operate.
The AQUA project has received funding from a number of government and educational sources, including the Canadian Space Agency. Waterline Sports, a Toronto dive shop has become a sponsor, assisting the students involved in the project, with scuba gear used in their open water robot trials. They also gave the students space in their booth at the Adventure Show to let divers get a glimpse of the mini-robot.
“If we can get investment money we want to take this project even farther,” said Zacher. “ This unit can go anywhere a diver can – in fact it is strong enough to tow a diver through the water. It can swim in a 21/2 knot current and it doesn’t have to worry about passing through toxic waste or other environmentally challenged zones. “
The robot is small and light. In warm water trials conducted in Barbados two years ago, AQUA was launched by simply tossing it into the water from shore. It is currently powered by removable 48 volt lithium ion batteries that give it over 2 hours of bottom-time.
Zacher estimates that the Aqua prototype brought to the Mississauga show cost about $50,000 to make. That price tag will fall dramatically if the robot ever goes into production.


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