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Section 1

Just a short distance away from me, two astronauts are practicing for a spacewalk. I’m drifting weightlessly, in a silence broken only by my own breathing and the occasional update from Mission Control in my headset. But this isn’t the dark void of space. I’m in Houston, scuba diving in a massive swimming pool that NASA uses to train astronauts for zero-gravity environments. And though it’s a thrill to watch the space-suited figures at work, I didn’t come to see them. I’m here for a peek at Aquanaut, the bright orange robot that we’re sharing the pool with.

Aquanaut glides smoothly through the water like a miniature submarine. At first, it doesn’t seem all that different from other unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, equipped with sensors for gathering data and thrusters for propulsion. Then, in what could be a scene from the movie Transformers, the top part of the robot’s hull rises up from the base, exposing two massive arms that unfold from either side. A wedge-shaped head packed full of sensors rotates into place, and in a matter of seconds, the transformation is complete. The sleek submarine is now a half-humanoid robot, ready to get to work.

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