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Breaking the Surface 2014 – My Direct-To-DVD Sci-Fi Horror Holiday With Underwater Robots

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Early October, late evening, pitch dark Croatian countryside. The bus guns its engine and rumbles off along the dark mountain road, leaving me on the bus stop with my backpack and trolley luggage, feeling confused. So, I guess the Split to Biograd na Moru bus doesn’t actually stop at Biograd, as in at the downtown bus station, but somewhere in the outskirts of the town. I check my phone, which is running out of battery fast, reflect for a moment, and turn the data transfer on for long enough to get an approximate direction to where the hotel might be. Well, it’s an interesting start.

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Of Seriously Needing A Holiday

2014 is a year of weird holes opening up in Siberia and airplanes falling from the sky, which doesn’t sound at all like a newscast that’s on in the background in the early scenes of a sci-fi horror film. So, the logical thing for me to do was to spend the remains of my holiday in Balkans in a small town called Biograd learning stuff about autonomous underwater robots. What could go wrong? But, in all seriousness, this October my planned R&R was a week-long conference called Breaking the Surface, which brought together roboticists, marine biologists and marine archaeologists to present the advances and the challenges in their fields, and to figure out new ways of co-operating.

Unman the machines! Most of the ROVs and robots look very very manly indeed.

Unman the machines! Most of the underwater robots look very very manly indeed.

The week leading up to the conference wasn’t one of the best this year. Having just celebrated getting my finances in order, I had to dish out a ton of money on Monday because a molar decided to fucking explode, losing 80% of it’s mass in one bite (that was one expensive piece of candy). I had to go to a dentist to get it fixed, and I didn’t get my usual one with the laser drills that do wonders for my fear of dentists. Titanium screws were involved. On Tuesday I went to our company HR to talk about switching jobs internally, on Thursday we heard the company is laying off 16% of the workforce which made my HR talk sound like a blackadderian Cunning Plan, and to top it off I got sick. Also, I was ready to start writing my second novel which I’d been planning since 2010 or so, but spent the sick days reading A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias, which was… well, essentially what I was going to write but better, so off to the trash the novel idea went. I was still running a fever on Saturday, but luckily it cleared up for Sunday when I had to fly out. Kept coughing up mucus through the week like a Victorian tuberculosis patient, though.

So. This Holiday. Much needed.

The stars of a new Pixar films - just two robot buddies off for an adventure!

The stars of a new Pixar film – just two robot buddies off for an adventure!

Lectures and Hands-On Robotics

The conference days were packed from the morning to the evening. The first half of the day before the lunch consisted of lectures by roboticists, marine archaeologists and marine biologists. On average the former presented their robotic systems and ROVs that they were developing, the latter the real world problems and realities they encounter in their work. One of the aims of Breaking the Surface was bringing these two groups together to hit some creative sparks. I have noticed that people who do underwater research seem to be somewhat suspicious of technology, for a good reason. If water and electricity are involved, the result is all too often something expensive that breaks easily and causes additional hassle. There’s also the eternal conflict between what an engineer thinks the end user wants, and what do they actually want. From that perspective BtS is a very valuable gathering.

A merry gnome piloting a Videoray ROV.

A merry gnome piloting a Videoray ROV.

I was pretty impressed with the width of topics of the morning lectures. For example, I got to learn damn fascinating stuff about underwater communications, which is even more challenging than I had assumed it would be. Another very fascinating topic was the search of WWII era dumped munitions around Hawaii and in our dear little Baltic Sea. I did know that a lot of stuff got just dumped there after the war, but I didn’t know that it’s the world’s largest dump of mustard gas, which currently resides in the bottom sediment as pretty little pralines of death with a chewy center of active sulfur mustard (mustard gas isn’t actually a gas, but an aerosol). There were lectures about habitat mapping both underwater and from satellite imagery, automatic underwater mapping, awesome underwater images from such challenging locations as Costa Concordia, Deepwater Horizon and SS Richard Montgomery, a munitions ship carrying a yield equivalent of a small nuclear device and still residing in Thames estuary. The most banally beautiful sci-fi system was one made for inspecting off-shore wind parks, with each turbine having a small ROV you could control over the net with a browser or Xbox Kinect. Then, of course, you had the robotic dive buddies and swarming underwater robots. Utterly, utterly fascinating stuff.

A prototype robotic dive buddy. The white box in front is a medical grade ultrasound scanner accurate enough that it can detect diver hand signs.

A prototype robotic dive buddy. The white box in front is a medical grade ultrasound scanner accurate enough that it can detect diver hand signs.

The second half of the day was devoted to actual hands on trials and even some workshops. On an average day we mosied off to the pier or the seawater pool next to the hotel where the roboticist groups had set out their equipment. While the morning lectures provided fascinating theory, but what made my jaw drop was actually getting some hands-on time with the robots and ROVs. Some of the autonomous robot demos were just that, a robot following a preprogrammed search pattern, sometimes with an autonomous surface vessel following it, and even a quadcopter drone tracking the ASV in the air. We got to try out Videoray’s new model, where the motors were so efficient you could make the thing jump up from the water like a dolphin. The demo version also came with a sonar, which was interesting to try out. I also got to try and drive around a 500 kg ROV, which turned on a dime, was quite sluggish otherwise, and still lacked such features as on-screen telemetry and safety measures that would prevent it from hitting the bottom (“Yeah, we have bottom sonar and we could do a safety feature that you can’t crash it to the seabed, but I didn’t have the time to code it in yet.”). Like so many other ROVs, it was controlled with an off-the-shelf Logitech Xbox 360 controller, and the data it gave back was video in a very small screen. I got the ROV so lost from the target area it could have started selling tax free booze, but didn’t manage to break the thing.

A small screen, no telemetry and solar glare, no safety protocols implemented. Yup, I have no idea where the ROV is going.

A small screen, no telemetry and solar glare, no safety protocols implemented. Yup, I have no idea where the ROV is going.

I think the personal award for the most fascinating robot went to the Estonian team and their biomimetic turtlebot. They started developing a robot to use inside shipwrecks, discarded the idea of propellers and just thought what shape would make the most sense – and just by following the robotic version of convergent evolution ended up with a ROV that looks a lot like a turtle. It was really challenging to pilot, again with a console controller, but damn it was a cool piece of hardware. I actually jumped in to the pool to snorkel around it, just to see it operate underwater. That was closes to diving that I got during the week, which is a good thing since even snorkeling made my snot filled ears hurt.

 

TURTLEBOT TO THE RESCUE!

TURTLEBOT TO THE RESCUE!

In case I forget that I'm actually not super smart.

Some theory of underwater communications. In case I forget that I’m actually not super smart.

Extracurricular Activities

It was off season and Biograd na Moru was quite dead. The days were packed and went on ’till quite late, and there wasn’t any arranged evening program except for people kicking it easy in the hotel bar. I spent a couple of evenings geocaching around the town. This took me to the old downtown, to rummage on a yard of an old church where the service was going on inside. I got a few suspicious glances skulking around an old well, poking at the seams between stones. A longer trip took me to the seaside some ways out of the downtown. It was utterly lovely walking on the beach, which had that off-season melancholy oozing off it. Closed down kiosks, the sand still holding the footprints of the last beachgoers. The sun started setting and the Moon was huge and softly yellow on the sky, like a glob of rancid butter. The beach turned into a rocky shore, with a low earthen cliff carved concave by the waves. On the water’s edge people had built tall cairns and little fortifications of the stones, and there was a giggling of kids and couples coming from the hollows. On top of the cliff there was a thicket of reeds there meters tall, and fig and olive trees. The air had a spicy scent, birds and crickets kept chirping and rustling in the vegetation. There were ruins, overgrown lots, immaculately tended little gardens and everything in between. A beautiful, beautiful evening geowalk.

Church of St. Anastasia, with a geocache on the yard.

Church of St. Anastasia, with a geocache on the yard.

Not surprisingly, all the new information made my brain buzz, and in one of the evenings I suddenly realized how I could salvage my novel concept so that it doesn’t sound like a cheap knock-off of That Damn Novel. I dashed to my hotel room, poured myself a drink and started writing – and surfaced at 5am with a synopsis that totally twisted the novel’s story around and took it to far darker themes and harder sci-fi. I missed the first half of the morning lectures, but it was worth it.

The beach was full of weird little cairns.

The beach was full of weird little cairns.

On Saturday, the day before leaving, we had the social programme, which was a cruise and a visit to one of the nearby islands. It was a relaxing day of exploration and interesting chats. I went right off the reservation to explore some ruins I found on the island, and then spent the afternoon chatting with Mr. Dean and Dr. Edwards about volunteering in marine biology and archaeology, and certain concepts in the novel, such as how it really feels being in a minisub half a kilometer deep.

I think it's dead.

I think it’s dead.

Getting the novel restarted also picked up my mood a bit. The week had been massively fascinating and I’d met great people with such awesome jobs and careers – deep diving in small submersibles, going from being an Alaskan crab fisherman to a professor of marine archaeology, creating biomimetic robots, etc. A certain robotics project included anthropologists studying non-verbalics (which was something I read tons of academic literature about as a kid and wanted to actually study). I asked them if they’d need a computational linguist, and the answer was yes – but they already had one. That kind of nudged interesting doors ajar.

A snail in hiding.

A snail in hiding.

Nevertheless, the mood of the week was a bit bittersweet. All that awesome science people were doing kind of drove home how profoundly unhappy I am with what I’ve been stuck doing for far too long, ie. PR and media, and what great things there would be to do out in the world, if only I could figure out how to get there. After an exhausting year and an especially stressful autumn I was feeling lost and dejected in a way and magnitude unfamiliar to me. I always have a next step planned to some degree, but there and then I was feeling utterly trapped and far too exhausted to do anything about the situation, or to even see what the something would be. Especially so when the attempt at internal job shift blew on my face like nothing before. This led to some exhausted and depressed late night brooding on the balcony, sipping wine and looking over the Adriatic Sea.

…which of course made me appreciate the fact that be it as it may, things could be so much much worse.

Harbour

Hazy day.

There were a lot of interesting urbex locations around.

There were a lot of interesting urbex locations around.

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