Underwater robots, including Remote Operating Vehicles (ROV) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), are currently used to support underwater missions that are either impossible or too risky to be performed by manned systems. In recent years the academia and robotic industry have paved paths for tackling technical challenges for ROV/AUV operations. The level of intelligence of ROV/AUV has increased dramatically because of the recent advances in low-power-consumption embedded computing devices and machine intelligence (e.g., AI). Nonetheless, operating precisely underwater is still extremely challenging to minimize human intervention due to the inherent challenges and uncertainties associated with the underwater environments. Proximity operations, especially those requiring precise manipulation, are still carried out by ROV systems that are fully controlled by a human pilot. A workplace-ready and worker-friendly ROV interface that properly simplifies operator control and increases remote operation confidence is the central challenge for the wide adaptation of ROVs.
This paper examines the recent advances of virtual telepresence technologies as a solution for lowering the barriers to the human-in-the-loop ROV teleoperation. Virtual telepresence refers to Virtual Reality (VR) related technologies that help a user to feel that they were in a hazardous situation without being present at the actual location. We present a pilot system of using a VR-based sensory simulator to convert ROV sensor data into human-perceivable sensations (e.g., haptics). Building on a cloud server for real-time rendering in VR, a less trained operator could possibly operate a remote ROV thousand miles away without losing the minimum situational awareness. The system is expected to enable an intensive human engagement on ROV teleoperation, augmenting abilities for maneuvering and navigating ROV in unknown and less explored subsea regions and works. This paper also discusses the opportunities and challenges of this technology for ad hoc training, workforce preparation, and safety in the future maritime industry. We expect that lessons learned from our work can help democratize human presence in future subsea engineering works, by accommodating human needs and limitations to lower the entrance barrier.