Intelligence in the abyss: robots colonise Venice lagoon

Would you dive into a body of water populated by about 150 robots? That’s what could happen if you were to fall off a “gondola” in the Venice lagoon, where scientists are giving birth to the world’s largest population of autonomous robots

by Rebecca Parsons


“We’re actually trying to establish a robotic society”, says Thomas Schmickl, head of the Artificial Intelligence Lab of the Karl-Franzens University of Graz, Austria, which is coordinating the study.
“Our robots would not just carry out operations for which they are programmed or trained, but they would also develop social skills, learning how to communicate and interact with other robots, as well as with the surrounding environment.”


Different types of robots are being designed to help fight pollution in the lagoon environment

To cope with the harshness of the lagoon environment, the researchers from seven European research institutes working for the project, called Subcultron (Submarine Cultures Perform Long-Term Robotic Exploration Of Unconventional Environmental Niches), have designed three types of robots: the aMussels (artificial mussels), whose mission is to lay on the seabed to monitor the natural habitat, including biological agents like algae, bacterial incrustation or fish.
At intermediate depths, the aFish (artificial fish) swim in the water and exchange data and information with mussels and aPads (artificial lily pads), flat floating devices on the surface of the water, which act as the main points of contact with the human world, aside from providing energy to the entire system.

The 3 underwater robots

aPads: they will provide global cognition, user interaction and energy autonomy for the whole system from the surface.
aFishes: highly manouverable, they will provide action and information transfer
aMussels: these very weakly actuated units will provide long-term spatial coverage.


Researchers participating in a subCULTron workshop in Venice

“It may sound as a rather eccentric project but our rationale is to create a system, shaped into a society of autonomous agents, which are engineered to perform a given set of operations, but also able to learn from the environment in which they live, and take decisions based on their experience and understanding,” comments Schmickl.


Beyond scientific research: underwater robots meet art


“Robots in Distress” installation (via boredomresearch)

The subCULTron project goes beyond the traditional limits of scientific research, expanding its influence also to the artistic field: inspired by its underwater robots, a couple of artists named boredomresearch developed an installation: Robots in Distress is a murky underwater world populated by glowing craft, navigating the hazards of a terrain heavily polluted with plastic waste. Its aim is to investigate the links among biology, robotics and environments impacted by increased human activity.
The artistic duo worked with a subCULTron engineer, during a EU-funded residency at the Artificial Intelligence Lab, to explore the motion dynamics of micro-controlled plastic waste, which later informed the craft seen exploring the mysterious underwater world of the artwork.