• JPL's Steve Chien with several of the underwater drones used in a research project earlier this year. Chien, along with his research collaborators, are developing artificial intelligence for these drones.
    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

JPL News: From Monterey Bay to Europa

If you think operating a robot in space is hard, try doing it in the ocean. Saltwater can corrode your robot and block its radio signals. Kelp forests can tangle it up, and you might not get it back. Sharks will even try to take bites out of its wings.

The ocean is basically a big obstacle course of robot death. Despite this, robotic submersibles have become critical tools for ocean research. While satellites can study the ocean surface, their signals can't penetrate the water. A better way to study what's below is to look beneath yourself -- or send a robot in your place.

That's why a team of researchers from NASA and other institutions recently visited choppy waters in Monterey Bay, California. Their ongoing research is developing artificial intelligence for submersibles, helping them track signs of life below the waves. Doing so won't just benefit our understanding of Earth's marine environments; the team hopes this artificial intelligence will someday be used to explore the icy oceans believed to exist on moons like Europa. If confirmed, these oceans are thought to be some of the most likely places to host life in the outer solar system.

If successful, this project could lead to submersibles that can plot their own course as they go, based on what they detect in the water around them. That could change how we collect data, while also developing the kind of autonomy needed for planetary exploration, said Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech.

Read the full story from JPL News