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MSU Researchers Improve Underwater Robotics With 'GRACE'

MSU researchers are using a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their study and construction of underwater robots.


At first glance, if you saw it underwater, you might mistake it for an actual fish. But GRACE, as she’s been named, is a robot.

Made of carbon fiber and painted yellow with a green MSU Spartan helmet on the tail, GRACE is about three feet long.

“GRACE stands for 'gliding robot' and 'ace' just means good. And, well, actually it moves with grace.”

Watch the video below to see GRACE in action.


Xiaobo Tan is the MSU Foundation Professor of the College of Engineering and co-principal investigator on this project, along with his partner Vaibhav Srivastava, assistant professor in MSU’s College of Engineering. The purpose of the project is to help humans and robots collaborate more effectively.

The researchers are intertwining humans' abilities to recognize patterns and missing information with robots' abilities to quickly process large sums of information.


“Robots and humans have different strengths and weaknesses,” says Tan. “Humans will always- I still think they are the smartest animals on the planet. Not just animals, but smartest machines as well. We can deal with sophisticated scenarios and we have a lot of subtle understanding of the environment and the other processes involved. Robots, on the other hand, they don't have feelings... yet,” he laughs. “And also they can do harder work. We send them to do hard work, tedious work, dangerous work.”

A robotic fish like GRACE has several different uses, Tan explains.

“For example you can use it to monitor water quality, you can monitor for example harmful algae blooms, you can perform surveillance in water just to monitor whether there are enemy ships or other types of vessels in the environment. One application we have been working on is tracking the movement of live fish species in lakes.”

But one main area of focus in this research is to use the robots for search-and-rescue missions.

“These robots are energy efficient so that they can work underwater for a long time. They just swim around collecting imagery and then they would send the imagery back to the surface to a boat, personnel on the boat. And people would be able to look at the images and make some decisions. And then we'd send other types of robots, for example, remotely operated vehicles, to help, if actually some victim is identified from the imagery.”

Underwater robotics is an active field already, but Tan says their research at MSU is building on current technology.

“So, in this project, we are advancing some of these robotic technologies. But the main point of this particular project is to look at the synergy between human teams and robotic teams.”

Putting GRACE in the water for a test run.
Credit Xiaobo Tan / MSU College of Engineering
MSU College of Engineering
Putting GRACE in the water for a test run.

When they recently took GRACE 2.1 for a field test in Higgins Lake, MI, things didn’t go perfectly.

“So, interestingly, we had a leak. And of course people tend not to talk about these things, but it is a reality. We had a leak. Actually, twice. The first time we fixed it, and the second time the leak caused the robot to sink to the bottom of the lake, which at that particular location was about 70 feet. So, we started a search-and-rescue mission, I guess,” Tan says, laughing.

The search-and-rescue mission for the search-and-rescue robot was a success, and now the plan is to troubleshoot and work on improvements, starting with that pesky leak.


They have a patent on their technology and hope to sell it to others in the future, so it can be used by many and potentially save lives.


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