A group of graduate students are working to bring robotic technologies that once probed the far reaches of outer space to a whole new frontier of exploration: the depths of the Arctic Ocean.
In the university's Space Systems Laboratory, students are updating robot arms originally built for repairing NASA space satellites to withstand the high pressure and cold temperatures of deep-sea exploration. Researchers at NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology Experiment Program, which funded the project, are interested in using the robot to explore and retrieve samples of biological life forms that grow around volcanic vents on the Arctic Ocean floor — a feat no previous technology has been able to accomplish.
David Akin, the laboratory's director, said because these specimens live at such extreme underwater temperatures where no sunlight can reach, studying them may give researchers a glimpse of life beyond this planet.
"[Scientists] are always looking on Earth for life forms that are isolated from the rest of the planet," Akin said. "The raw ice shelf is the biggest piece of ice in the ocean. The key here is that once you go 10 or 20 kilometers in from the edge, it is permanently dark."
One of the biggest challenges in building a robot — which the researchers named Samurai — capable of exploring this treacherous frontier is enabling it to travel wirelessly.
In space, robotic arms are connected to a long cord and controlled by joysticks, a method that researchers said may not work as easily thousands of feet beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean.
"If you have a tether that is going over the side of your boat and the wind changes, it can push the sea ice against the side of the boat and basically sever your tether," said aerospace engineering graduate student Barrett Dillow, who is working on the project. "So if that happens, you probably will lose your vehicle."
And communicating with the robot once it reaches the vents would be impossible, as radio waves are absorbed by water and can't travel very far through the ocean. Therefore, the robot would need to have the instructions programmed into its system ahead of time.
"When you drop it off over the edge and it goes on its merry way, you basically don't know whether it is alive or dead until it comes back to the surface," said Dillow.
Another challenge Samurai presented was altering the robot to ensure it could operate at high pressures deep below the water.
"At that depth, the pressure is 8,000 pounds per square inch, so even metal will start to bend, so you have to design it to take that into account," said Akin. "Housings that hold the electronics have to be designed with titanium to take the pressure."
Samurai is also unique because it can travel up to 6,000 meters below the surface. Most other underwater robots can only manage 1,000 to 2,000 meters, but Samurai can reach 97 percent of the planet's seafloor.
According to Akin, the group's next goal is for NASA to use Samurai on an expedition to Antarctica to look for microbiological life forms.
"If we win this proposal, in 2014 we will go down to Antarctica and send a robot with the arm to the shelf and look at the life forms underneath what is the biggest ice shelf in the world," Akin said.