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Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-08-31

The project subCULTron aimed for achieving long-term autonomy in learning, self-regulating, self-sustaining underwater society/culture of robots in a complex environment: the lagoon of Venice. The heterogeneous system consists of 3 different agent types: aMussels, aFish and aPads. Artificial mussels (aMussels) are the collective long-term memory of the system, allowing information to stay beyond the life-time of other agents. These mussels monitor the natural habitat, including biological agents like algae, bacterial incrustations of the environment and fish. On the water surface, artificial lily pads (aPads) interface with the human society, delivering energy and information from the outside world. Between those two layers, artificial fish (aFish) roam, monitor and explore the environment and exchange information with the mussels and lilypads.

The project subCULTron succeeded in achieving all its planned goals and even went beyond these goals. The breakthroughs in the field of robotics with the application of an autonomous swarm robotic system for environmental monitoring in the lagoon of Venice (“Anoxia Experiment”), as well as the application of previous lab results on Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) in autonomous robots in the field demonstrate the high impact of subCULTRon on science and society. A spin-off company (“h2oRobotics”) was founded by members of the subCULTRon consortium during the runtime of the project and a series of lectures and courses at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice was established with the goal of giving scientists and students the opportunity to make use of the subCULTron robotic system far beyond the runtime of the project and to trigger new developments based on the findings of the project.
In the first development phase (reporting period 1), expectations of the stakeholders and scientific objectives were collected and evaluated. These Objectives led to the development of scenarios relevant for society, especially for the citizens of Venice, and scientists working in the lagoon. Furthermore, the requirements of these scenarios led to the development and adaptation of the different robot types, the aPad, the aFish and the aMussel. During the second phase of the project (reporting period 2), the design phase was finalised (“feature freeze”) and the mass production of robots started with the aim of building all planned 150 robots. In the last phase of the project (reporting period 3), the main focus was on the so called “Anoxia Experiment”, in which we tried to catch a biochemical phenomenon - Anoxia - with a huge impact on the lagoon of Venice. In the Summers of 2018 and 2019, groups of robots were deployed to the lagoon of Venice to record data on the environmental conditions of the lagoon.

In parallel, a great variety of algorithms were developed that are able to control this heterogeneous swarm of robots in the lagoon in an autonomous manner. The available prototypes and first robots from the “mass production phase” were used for a test of the developed algorithms under laboratory conditions as well as for environmental monitoring tasks in the lagoon. Selected units, which has proven especially suitable, were subsequently employed in the lagoon of Venice. Both the “inner areas” of Venice (“Arsenale”) and more natural areas of Venice, namely the salt marsh areas northeast of the main island and the shallow planes south of the main island were used as test sites.

Another central aspect of subCULTron was to develop and test the autonomy of the robotic system. Special focus was laid on the newly developed feature of the aMussel to use Microbial Fuel cells (MFCs) as an energy source. The MFCs made the aMussel prolonged the runtime of aMussels without recharging of batteries to up to 100 days. This constitutes a breakthrough regarding autonomy and energy harvesting in robotics.

In order to allow the scientists from the ISMAR institute in Venice to work with the subCULTron robotic system after the end of the project, the subCULTron consortium agreed to train students from the Ca' Foscari University of Venice to use and maintain the robots. The positive effect is two-fold: on the one hand the Scientists from Venice have a tool at hand to observe environmental phenomena in a spatially distributed, temporally parallel and highly redundant fashion. On the other hand, students will get a fully functional robotic platform for training and research purposes.

Our Goal to increase public awareness and acceptance of “smart environments”, which started in 2015 with our participation at the EXPO 2015 and the contribution to the EU-funded Initiative FEAT, was pushed further by many press activities, which triggered extensive press coverage across Europe.
The following major steps were achieved by subCULTron:

*) Step from development to application: The subCULTRon robotic system was not only tested under different out-of-the lab conditions, it was also actively used in scientific research in the “Anoxia-Experiment” in the summers of 2018 and 2019. In this experiment, the subCULTron robotic system was given the task to deliver data for a better understanding of the “Anoxia-Phenomenon”.
*) The biggest autonomous swarm of underwater robotic units was developed in the course of the project.
*) The MFC-System, developed within the project has proven to enable robots to run autonomously and deliver data for several months.
*) With the “Beyond subCULTron” - initiative, the subCULTron consortium initiated a series of lectures and courses to train students from Venice to use and further develop the autonomous subCULTron robotic system and to preserve the ability of the scientists of Venice to observe hydrochemical and biological phenomena in a spatially distributed, temporally parallel and highly redundant fashion.