A team of researchers from York University has helped created a robot with the smarts to think for itself as it swims underwater.

The team, led by York U professor of computer science and engineering Michael Jenkins, is working together with teams from McGill and Dalhousie universities to build the highly advanced AQUA robot, which resembles an otter and uses flippers to propel itself around underwater. Despite its cute, toy-like appearance, AQUA is intelligent enough to understand visual commands and perform complex underwater manoeuvres.

Jenkin’s team recently created an underwater control tablet that lets an operator interact with AQUA directly and much more quickly — a crucial feature when investigating dangerous, unknown environments like shipwrecks.


“We want to make vehicles that are more intelligent, that understand their world better and can
interact with the world better. The underlying goal is to enhance our understanding of how to build intelligent, autonomous systems,” Jenkin said.

Technophobes fear not, however — Jenkin’s team is not building the next Skynet from the Terminator movies, rather with AQUA they’re looking to create a robot that can make smart judgments about what it sees so as to be more useful on its own.

While a standard robot might have the sensors to count fish populations, for instance, AQUA would not only be able to monitor stocks, but understand whether those stocks are good or bad and report back immediately.

The robot is also expected to provide mobile maintenance for underwater equipment by itself, a large step beyond current similar robots, which need a human operator at all times.