First dolphins caught on. Now underwater robots are using iPads to communicate, thanks to a new system designed at York University in Toronto.

As Technology Review reports, divers can use symbols on tablet computers to control underwater ‘bots. The system could enable enhanced diver/robot collaboration.

Despite their importance for aquaculture, surveillance and oil-spill cleanup, it’s still difficult to remotely control robots underwater, especially when they are not tethered to a mother ship. Radio waves are too easily distorted, sonar requires too much power, and aquatic particles interfere with light waves. One new system would give robots transmission capabilities, allowing them to relay information and work in swarms.

The waterproof tablets may be the solution. They can display two-dimensional bar codes, or tags, that are already in use for smart phone applications. The tag at left is showing 10 bits.


Robot Command Tag

Flashing the tags at a free-swimming AQUA robot’s underwater camera allows for fast, robust communication. It’s better than other untethered communication platforms like sonar, Tech Review reports.

The tags correspond to a command stored in the robot’s memory. When the bot is tethered, it can react to the tags instantly and transmit video back to the tablet. When it’s untethered, it can respond to a tag command, perform its task and report back to the diver.

To date, the system has been tested in the open ocean and in swimming pools. Possible future uses include studying shipwrecks or even military applications, Tech Review says.

Technology Review