More on Dolphin Controlled Robots


Since David and Eric posted on Dolphin controlled robots, I've been thinking about various approaches; addressing issues raised in Mackay's research paper "Dolphin Interactions with Acoustically Controlled Systems"

It is important to note that this study was done in 1981. I have not been able to find anything recent. Can you believe that? Is it that it was unsuccessful? or more interesting research directions were discovered? I'm not sure, but whatever the reason, I haven't been able to find anything negative about acoustically controlled robotic systems and dolphin interaction.

The above photo is one from Blue-Bird Electric and highlights work done to attach a prosthetic tail fin to an injured dolphin. It turned out well for both the dolphin and the prostheses engineers; not to mention the Aquarium. This was a success on so many different levels. Winter, the Dolphin, is living happily in Clear Water Aquarium in Florida. (I want to visit...with a ROV)

So what's the tie in? Human-Dolphin interaction with the use of an artificial intermediary to illuminate communications lines between the two. Say that five times fast.

We have trained dolphins with hand signals and whistles. And there are key indicators that researchers use to decipher what dolphins are thinking / feeling. But it is by no means a proper dialogue. Could a ROV add in this?

Last May, I very quickly brainstormed a few ideas on how to modify an OpenROV to aid in dolphin communication research. The first high level thoughts were:

  • Hydrophone, possibly a hydrophone array for direction finding/tracking.
  • Not sure if the tether would get in the way. since I would think that you'd want the unit to interact with the dolphin, may want an AUV setup or high speed acoustic modem to transmit from the ROV to the surface (something out of the range of the dolphin frequency)
  • Set up a basic vocabulary. Probably use the Pavlov like idea at first (from the paper) and then build from there. map ROV movement to a reward.
  • Should have a ping to respond to the dolphin for audio feedback, let the dolphin interact with the ROV.
  • Pad the ROV, pad it well. the dolphins may wish to play with it
  • Paint it the same color as the dolphin...they may adopt it into the pod...that would be a paper!
  • Expanding on that, maybe even have the ROV track the dolphin and follow...difficult but not out of reach. However, dolphins are far faster...
  • Should try to damping the motor noise. I'd like to analyze the frequency noise of the ROV and compare it to the range of a dolphin to see the overlap. Mitigating communication noise would probably be a good idea, or masking it, say constructively tuned for a positive signal for movement, or destructively to negate the propagation wave. The blog about brush-less and magnetic drive motors would be well suited here I think.

The first step is to reproduce the original experiment. I think dolphins and people are vary similar. Dolphins get bored by gadgets as much has we do, so we need a system that rewards the dolphin and / or keeps it interested in the ROV.

Step 1:

  • Modify a v2.5 with a hydrophone.
  • Lesson motor noise.
  • Take lessons learned from Mackay and use the frequencies for direction control.
  • Code

Step 2:

  • Call Denise Herzing and build a vocabulary
  • Test with pre-recorded signals
  • Tune

Step 3:

  • Pad the ROV for protection. Dolphins like to play
  • Consider an acoustic communications system. The tether may get in the way. Again, Dolphins like to play.
  • Test with a dolphin.
  • Build a interest/reward system, perhaps Dr. Herzing already has this in place. I would think researchers know a bit about this.

Step 4:

  • Enter the beauty of the scientific method. Hypothesize, test, analyze, hypothesize, test ... Ad Infinitum.
  • Have one hell of a time.

The hydrophone, alphabet, and motor control bit holds the ghost. Another consideration is motor noise and other frequencies that may just annoy the dolphin. We'd need to know this up front.

We would also need to design the experiment intelligently and would need to work with researchers such that this little project produces really interesting science. That and it's just freakin' cool to have a dolphin control an OpenROV.

Imagine a dolphin with a prosthetic fin controlling an OpenROV to interact with people. We use dolphins in the Navy to tag mines and what not. (That's actually a route of research that should be deeply reviewed) Why not have a ROV as a companion?

I think I'll mock up a hydrophone system over the next month or so...

What does the community think? Come on, you all have to remember SeaQuest DSV...Darwin anyone?


Great post Jim! Looking forward to hearing further results.