Autonomy from the Heavens down to the Sea
MBARI - Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
With global climate change in the news, there is an increasing focus of robotics research in the ocean sciences where deep ocean robots are few and substantially less capable than those built for terrestrial and space research. Energy and communications (or lack there of) are two drivers of how robotic devices in the sea are challenged compared to their terrestrial and space cousins. These constraints coupled with lack of detailed understanding of ocean processes within the water column as well as the benthos, have made ocean exploration in its harsh environment an extremely challenging domain for robotics research. Yet recent shifts in ocean exploration with a move from the Expeditionary to the Observatory mode of doing science have only pushed for the use of robotic platforms with substantial onboard intelligence so as to enable a cost-effective way to observe, characterize, map and sample what lies under 70% of the Earths surface. To date substantial effort in autonomous systems research has focused on other domains. In particular, NASA made sustained investments in autonomy and AI research in general over the last two decades which have had sizable impact on its missions. In Jan 2004, MAPGEN became the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) based system to command a vehicle on the surface of another planet when the first surface plan for 'Spirit' was successfully built with MAPGEN, radiated and then executed on-board. Earlier in May 1999, the Remote Agent became the first AI based closed-loop control system to command a spacecraft (NASA's Deep Space One), when it was 65 Million miles from Earth. These two AI based systems were fundamentally different in their approaches to command a NASA vehicle in deep space. Yet the lessons learned from both of these missions were substantially similar especially when applying to other domains. I will discuss the continuum of efforts in autonomy, that could potentially alter the way how we will observe the oceans, keeping in mind the Remote Agent and MAPGEN experiences. I will attempt to lay out where Oceanography is as a discipline and where it needs to be to better meet near-term challenges. I will also highlight why NASA's investments for the last two decades will have an impact in understanding our own oceans and weave together the challenges and opportunities in this emergent field of intelligent robotics in our deep oceans.