AQUA man: The rise of the six-limbed robot turtle

It has six rotating flippers and can walk along a shoreline, swim in open water or dive deep into the dark ocean.  It is not a toy or a character in a computer game, but an amphibious autonomous robot named AQUA.

“It’s a six legged robotic turtle,” says Michael Jenkin, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at York University, whose work focuses on developing algorithms to enable AQUA to build and reason its position and orientation in a 3-D environment.

AQUA is part of a research project on autonomous vehicles being developed by researchers at York and McGill universities, to explore underwater environments and gather data with minimum disturbance to aquatic life. AQUA is primarily a research platform allowing scientists to ask fundamental and applied questions to autonomous systems.

“The fundamental question that we are trying to ask is, how do you build machine that can operate autonomously under complex environmental conditions,” says Jenkin.  “We are trying to answer questions that will allow us to build machines that will operate anywhere.”

AQUA is programmed to answer questions such as “Where am I?” and, “What is my orientation?” Jenkin says GPS systems help people navigate the Earth’s surface, but in more complex environments people have difficulty in orienting themselves.

“It is not very easy for scuba divers and pilots to know which way is up, because the internal systems that normally generate that information don’t work as well because of the complexities of the environment.”

Advanced robotic systems have begun to emerge as a key component in technology–based industries. As Jenkin points out there are cars that automatically stop when sensing danger and airbags that are triggered before impact.

Jenkin sees AQUA as a possible answer to solving problems that would normally require extreme measures.  Autonomous robots have the potential to help solve problems like monitoring oil pipelines. This would help streamline the current methods that require a multitude of components including using airplanes to take radar images.

AQUA is one of four amphibious autonomous robots on the planet. Although AQUA a research platform, versions of the robot have been used commercially. Jenkin’s last project involved developing a robot used to assist police in the investigation of crime scenes.

There is no timeline for how long AQUA can be used as a research platform. Robotic technology is rapidly advancing and it is only through continued research that scientists like Jenkin can remain on the cutting edge of robotics.

Michael Jenkin will be speaking next week at the What Matters Now event on April 9. This is a free public event scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection gallery.

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