Pandoras Box holds key to fully autonomous underwater robots

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

The Ocean Systems Laboratory (OSL) team at Heriot-Watt University is designing a new approach to independently motivated Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), with the aim of significantly improving the inspection, repair and maintenance reliability of vehicles used for underwater monitoring.


The system, named PANDORA (Persistent Autonomy through learNing, aDaptation, Observation and Re-plAnning) will be trialed on three different AUVs in Scotland and Spain covering in-lab and deep water conditions, to test the system on vehicles and monitor their ability to operate in €˜real €™ environments, overcome challenges, accommodate hardware failures and seek alternative missions when idle.

Following the Deep Water Horizon crisis in 2010, calls were made to dramatically improve the type and intelligence of vehicles used for underwater inspection and intervention, to reduce the opportunity for events of that scale to reoccur.

PANDORA is a particularly exciting robotics project undertaken by top European experts

Libor Král,  DG Information Society and Media, European Commission

European Commission funding

The European Commission issued a call for ideas on ways to increase the thinking capacity of robots supported by the provision of significant funding for viable projects. Identifying the opportunity to put their expertise to the test, the team of scientists, headed up by Professor David Lane, Founder of SeeByte, a Heriot-Watt spin out company, applied to the Commission with a comprehensive, three year research plan to create and develop Pandora for global commercial use. Their plan was the highest praised out of all responses and the team was duly awarded €2.MA (£2.3M).

Professor Lane explained the background to the project: "Autonomous robots have produced tremendous benefits but currently still face limitations. They often get stuck or ask for help and generally only succeed in familiar environments, when carrying out simple tasks. Over the next three years, our challenge is to develop a computational programme which will enable robots to recognise failure and have the intelligence to respond to it.

"We will develop and evaluate new computational methods to make human-built robots persistently autonomous, significantly reducing the frequency of assistance requests. This is an exceptionally exciting time for us and we are delighted with the response we had from the European Commission, which has allowed us to progress with our research."

Libor Král, Head of Unit, Cognitive Systems and Robotics, DG Information Society and Media, European Commission, said: "PANDORA is a particularly exciting robotics project undertaken by top European experts.

"The researchers have identified a real issue in an underwater environment where cutting-edge technology can help solve challenging problems. The European Commission is delighted to be supporting this latest addition to its portfolio of over 100 projects, within the EU's research seventh framework programme."

Core themes

Three core themes will be explored over the course of the project, working synergistically together, that are tailored for the underwater environment. These are:  

  • Structure inspection using sonar and video
  • Cleaning marine growth using water jets and  
  • Finding, grasping and turning valves

The project is being run in partnership with five universities across Europe - Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia, University of Girona, King €™s College London and National Technical University of Athens, with steering committee members from BP and SubSea7.