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Robots exploring the ocean depths 

14 July 2017
Inspection of ships, canals and dams made easy

Combining their passions for science and engineering, three University of Sydney Alumni are using marine robotic technology to help industry reach some of their most challenging and inaccessible underwater locations.

Abyss Solutions was founded in 2014 by three scientists and engineers from the University of Sydney. Chief Executive Officer, Dr Nasir Ahsan – an alumnus of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) – has a passion for deep water exploration after spending time on board the Nautilus EV (with Bob Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic) exploring the depths of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

Ahsan and Masood Naqshbandi [BE(Civil/Structural), BComm], whose university research was in photonics, material chemistry and optical sensor technology, started Abyss Solutions with the vision of developing novel sensors to allow greater perception underwater and enable research and exploration in the deepest part of our oceans.

They were joined by Abraham Kazzaz, a civil and structural engineer with vast experience working on the design, construction management and condition assessment of high-rise residential and commercial structures, industrial buildings, telecommunications structures, railway infrastructure and water infrastructure.

The team saw a large gap in the market for asset inspection and management of civil and marine infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, ships, ports and offshore structures.

“While very expensive inspection or surveying equipment exists for deep offshore assessments, nothing of this nature is available to civil infrastructure companies, whose budgets don’t afford such expensive equipment,” says Naqshbandi. “We are implementing a lot of fresh research ideas to commercial problems to make this possible.”

Abyss has worked on some highly challenging inspection projects where the conditions, location and size of the operations have lent themselves to Abyss’ specialist technology. The inspection of the 34km Alexandra canal for Sydney Water, for example, was only achievable using Abyss’ remote surface vessels, given the canal was completely inaccessible by land, air and water.

“In the canal, we collected over half a million images,” remarks Naqshbandi. “Our algorithms were able to process that within five hours, compared to 72 man hours and with 97% accuracy.”

The inspection of 230 metre-long propellers on the Australian Navy ship, HMAS Adelaide, has also been made possible using the Abyss’ underwater assets.

The Abyss team has high aspirations for the future. “Abyss’ aim is to be the most reputable asset management company in the world. We want to dominate markets in water, shipping and offshore,” says Naqshbandi. “In the longer term, we want to create collaborative swarms of underwater robots that can build complex infrastructure underwater and image and survey the entire ocean floor.”

Where is the robotics industry heading in coming years? Naqshbandi agrees with others in predicting the dominance of robotics and AI in industry, not only in terms of robots taking over mindless manual factory jobs but the use of AI to make menial and repetitive office work obsolete. 

“For most people that is scary proposition and they are worried about losing their jobs, but I think it is a good thing,” says Naqshbandi. “Not only will it free up humans to pursue more creative and gratifying careers and hobbies, it will also make dangerous and dirty jobs safer and cleaner. Take Abyss for example, no diver wants to dive into toxic waters to inspect a wall, but the robots have no complaints doing that.”