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Yogesh Girdhar, then a McGill University doctoral student, working with underwater robot Aqua. Credit: Ioannis Rekleitis/McGill University

If a robot plunges into the ocean of an icy moon, perhaps near Saturn or Jupiter, its main problem will be figuring out what to do next. Even at light speed, it takes hours for communications to pass back and forth to Earth.

This means any robotic explorer would need to be smart enough to avoid danger, and sophisticated enough to figure out what information to send back. These were problems puzzling Yogesh Girdhar who, as a part of his doctorate dissertation at McGill University in Montreal, redid the “brains” of an undersea robot called Aqua . An underwater robot is somewhat analogous to a space-bound robot, as both face the difficulties of communication.

“ Mars is [situated] at the limit of where humans can directly control a robot to do these kinds of research,” said Girdhar, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “The amount of data is a problem. You can’t be streaming HD video from Mars all the time, live, down to Earth. The same thing happens underwater. There are no radio waves. Because of salt water, you can only use an acoustic modem. It’s very low bandwidth. You can receive data at a much higher speed from Mars than you can from a robot deep underwater.”

The key to getting around that problem, Girdhar said, is having the robot train itself to recognize what is typical terrain and what is unusual. If it spots something that is rare, it is possible that whatever it saw was altered by life in some way and would require further analysis by scientists.

Part of Girdhar’s work, titled “ Exploring Underwater Environments with Curiosity ,” was presented at the Canadian Conference on Computer and Robot Vision in 2014. Girdhar worked in the laboratory of Gregory Dudek, director of McGill’s computer science department.

Yogesh Girdhar, then a McGill University doctoral student, working with underwater robot Aqua. Credit: Ioannis Rekleitis/McGill University

If a robot plunges into the ocean of an icy moon, perhaps near Saturn or Jupiter, its main problem will be figuring out what to do next. Even at light speed, it takes hours for communications to pass back and forth to Earth.

This means any robotic explorer would need to be smart enough to avoid danger, and sophisticated enough to figure out what information to send back. These were problems puzzling Yogesh Girdhar who, as a part of his doctorate dissertation at McGill University in Montreal, redid the “brains” of an undersea robot called Aqua . An underwater robot is somewhat analogous to a space-bound robot, as both face the difficulties of communication.

“ Mars is [situated] at the limit of where humans can directly control a robot to do these kinds of research,” said Girdhar, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “The amount of data is a problem. You can’t be streaming HD video from Mars all the time, live, down to Earth. The same thing happens underwater. There are no radio waves. Because of salt water, you can only use an acoustic modem. It’s very low bandwidth. You can receive data at a much higher speed from Mars than you can from a robot deep underwater.”

The key to getting around that problem, Girdhar said, is having the robot train itself to recognize what is typical terrain and what is unusual. If it spots something that is rare, it is possible that whatever it saw was altered by life in some way and would require further analysis by scientists.

Part of Girdhar’s work, titled “ Exploring Underwater Environments with Curiosity ,” was presented at the Canadian Conference on Computer and Robot Vision in 2014. Girdhar worked in the laboratory of Gregory Dudek, director of McGill’s computer science department.

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