We know far less about the Earth’s oceans than we do about the surface of the moon or Mars. The sea floor is carved with expansive canyons, towering seamounts, deep trenches, and sheer cliffs, most of which are considered too dangerous or inaccessible for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) to navigate.
But what if the reward for traversing such places was worth the risk?
MIT engineers have now developed an algorithm that lets AUVs weigh the risks and potential rewards of exploring an unknown region. For instance, if a vehicle tasked with identifying underwater oil seeps approached a steep, rocky trench, the algorithm could assess the reward level (the probability that an oil seep exists near this trench), and the risk level (the probability of colliding with an obstacle), if it were to take a path through the trench.
“If we were very conservative with our expensive vehicle, saying its survivability was paramount above all, then we wouldn’t find anything of interest,” says Benjamin Ayton, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “But if we understand there’s a tradeoff between the reward of what you gather, and the risk or threat of going toward these dangerous geographies, we can take certain risks when it’s worthwhile.”
Ayton says the new algorithm can compute tradeoffs of risk versus reward in real time, as a vehicle decides where to explore ne