Junaed Sattar and a student place the water robot in a lake for deployment
Sattar and a student talk amongst themselves while setting up the robot on shore
The Minnebot represents a new generation of aquatic exploration.

But it won’t be easy. For one thing, sophisticated as the technology is, the underwater environment is unforgiving.

“Lose one screw, and the Minnebot drowns,” says Sattar.

Minnesota waterways are stressed by invasive weeds like Eurasian watermilfoil, which changes water chemistry and hurts wildlife important to our economy. Other stressors include climate warming, a driver of algal growth and bane of trout and walleye; and spreading human habitation, which pollutes and disrupts the numerous small wetlands—“prairie potholes”—crucial for migrant waterfowl.

Threats to Minnesota waterways and wildlife

Eurasian water milfoil top a body of water

Eurasian watermilfoil

A picture of Algal growth

Algal growth

A polar bear stands on and looks out at melting ice caps

Climate warming

A hose and a steel structure are being built next to each other

Spreading human habitation

“Particularly in Minnesota, we care about lakes and waterways,” says Corey Knutson, a doctoral student in Sattar’s lab. “Humans can’t clean up waterways by themselves. The point of robots is to do dull, dangerous jobs humans don’t want to do.

Sattar puts the top of the casing back on the robot in a workshop setting
A diver watches the robot using snorkeling goggles

From lab to lake, the Minnebot is changing our ideas about underwater exploration.

Versatile vehicle

The Minnebot’s algorithms allow it to identify everything from mussels and moray eels to all manner of plastic debris. It’s already finding trash in Twin Cities lakes, as well as the ocean, Sattar says.

The Minnebot also has great potential in hazardous situations like searching shipwrecks or clearing lakes of invasive species. Sattar’s team can, for example, train robots to identify and locate weeds like milfoil.

“It can take the DNR many weeks to clear a lake,” Sattar notes. “Then multiply that by 10,000 lakes. It is dangerous because people have to work underwater for a prolonged period of time. We’d like robots to do this task by themselves. The Minnebot can detect milfoil and is learning to map it. It could identify it at deeper depths, before it’s a nuisance.”

Also, “We could ask the Minnebot to, for example, find an arsenic leak in a lake. Forty percent of wells built since 2008 have arsenic contamination.”

Even cold, clear Lake Superior harbors subsurface rivers of algae that bode ill for its continued health. The Minnebot’s sensors can help identify conditions like currents, temperatures, plant life, or wave velocities that may spur algal growth but could potentially be controlled.

A coastal headland points out in the distance of the lake superior shoreline

State of the art

The U of M Interactive Robotics and Vision Laboratory, which focuses on underwater robotics, is unique in the Midwest. To find others, you’d have to travel to coastal areas of the United States or to other continents.

The battery-operated Minnebot comes with three cameras for taking pictures at different angles, a gyroscope to identify its orientation, and a depth sensor. It can also be outfitted with a sonar device to detect objects, including rocks, fish, plants, shipwrecks—or bodies. It might even find a cell phone.

Sattar and his team work on the Minnebot on a workbench
Junaed Sattar and his team work together to improve the Minnebot's capabilities.

Though autonomous, it will often be guided by, and even converse with, a diver. It can “nod its head” and move its flippers or body to signal, for example, “turn right,” “follow me,” “object left,” “danger,” and “malfunction.” Sattar and his colleagues are improving algorithms to upgrade and refine its communication abilities.

“We’re trying to teach it to ‘speak human,’” he explains. “We’re experts in underwater human-robot interactions, one of the top teams in the world, as measured by research output. Diver-AI interaction is a growing field.”

A top down view from above showing a rocky emerald colored lakeside with people swimming
An underwater picture of a robot swimming p to a plastic water bottle

Left: A diver brings the Minnebot back after an experiment. Right: LoCO, an AUV built by Sattar's team, detecting debris. 

Wave of the future

The United Nations lists conservation and sustainable use of “Life Below Water” as the 14th global goal that will change our lives in the foreseeable future. One day, the Minnebot will play its part by allowing people to scan lakes, prairie potholes, or oceans.

Two from Satter's team sets up the robot on the side of the beach

Sattar’s team was recently awarded research funds to start using it for live water quality assessment. They already have explored various water bodies in Minnesota—for example, Cannon Falls’ Lake Byllesby, parts of which at the time were below a thick algal mat.

“Someday,” Sattar says, “[we’ll be able to] pull up a lake map on a computer, tell it where to go in a lake, and get results in 10 to 15 minutes.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Sattar foresees a simple, grim consequence if Minnesota fails to adopt a technology like this:

“Water quality will go down the drain.”

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