By Zhang Xiaomin in Dalian, Liaoning province
An underwater robot developed by a team of five students from Dalian University of Technology independently picked up 11 scallops within 40 minutes on Sept 18 in the coastal waters of Dalian Jinshitan National Tourism Resort, Liaoning province.
"It is a key breakthrough, because during the previous three underwater robot gripping contests, no team had successfully managed to hold a single marine object independently," says Liu Xiaofeng, a member of the university's Oureda team.
Initiated in 2017, the China Underwater Robot Professional Contest is the world's first underwater intelligent robot competition held in a real offshore environment.
This year's contest was held from Sept 18 to 20 in Dalian Jinpu New Area. There are 290 groups and 170 individuals participating in the contest for object identification online, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 20 groups competed physically in the open water for the independent picking and man-machine coordinated picking events.
"The teams need to overcome the influence of complex undersea environments, including currents, water density and tides, as well as the differences between an experimental environment and the real environment," says Luo Zhongxuan, assistant to president of the DUT, an organizer of the contest.
Despite the difficulties, the participating teams still achieved great improvements and breakthroughs, he says.
The robots are required to meet a full range of technical indicators, such as simulation, intelligent control, underwater target detection and identification, says Luo.
It is the second time that Oureda team participated in the contest. Last year, they took third prize in the man-machine coordination group.
According to Gao Wen, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the teams have been making progress in the individual areas of machinery and algorithms, the combination of both, alongside the area of coordination.
"There is a huge market for underwater robots. Through the competition, we wish to promote innovation and the development of artificial intelligence and underwater robots," says Gao.
In recent years, the National Natural Science Foundation of China has vigorously promoted research in the field of underwater robots, especially in areas pertaining to the environmental perception of the robots and their ability to target and acquire underwater objects. It has established key project groups to provide funding.
Zhang Zhaotian, executive deputy director of the information department of the NSFC, says China attaches great importance to innovative development. The latest generation of AI is regarded as a driving force to promote major developments in science, technology and the upgrading of industrial optimization.
"We hope the competition will bring together more experts, scholars and research teams, both at home and abroad, and promote the innovation and development of AI and underwater robots in China," says Zhang.
The host city of Dalian, which boasts one-tenth of the country's coastline, has a solid scientific research foundation in the development of underwater robots, with a number of universities and research institutions engaged in the sector, including the DUT and Dalian Maritime University.
Local government has given financial support to the contest for years. A smart key laboratory for the research and development of underwater robots was set up at the DUT, as a key support project, says Zhang Zhihong, vice-mayor of Dalian.
The government plans to provide 30 million yuan ($4.47 million) a year for five consecutive years, he says.
According to Zhang, Dalian will accelerate the construction of the country's first marine intelligent equipment base in a real sea area in Dalian Jinpu New Area.
"We will integrate domestic universities and superior industrial resources to carry out high-level scientific research and technological development related to underwater robots, and promote the design, research and development of underwater robots and industrial incubation," he says.
A summit forum on AI and underwater robots was held after the contest. Experts and scholars attending the meeting discussed the cuttingedge topic and shared views on such issues as system control of underwater and cluster robots, intelligent human-computer interaction and target perception and recognition.