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Drexel Professor Awarded ONR Grant to Study Ocean Dynamics using Teams of Robots

November 6, 2012 — The Office of Naval Research awarded M. Ani Hsieh, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at Drexel University, and her team from the Scalable Autonomous Systems Laboratory a $510,000 grant to develop  new ways to coordinate teams of robots to track and map ocean dynamics. 

The three-year project, funded through the Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator Program, focuses on overcoming the theoretical and technical challenges required to enable autonomous underwater and surface vehicles (AUVs/ASVs) to better navigate in highly dynamic and noisy environments, such as the ocean.

AUVs and ASVs have found significant commercial, military and scientific applications and are often used to study the dynamics of plankton assemblages in the ocean, map the seafloor for the oil and gas industries and in anti-submarine warfare missions. While prevalent, the technology is not without obstacles. Control of AUVs is often difficult since they must operate with little human intervention and with limited power and communication capabilities. Coupled with the rapidly changing nature of the ocean, planning energy-efficient missions using AUVs is often very challenging.

Hsieh hopes that a greater understanding of the geophysical fluid dynamics will allow scientists to better leverage the inherent motions in the ocean to plan more energy-efficient navigation strategies for applications like data harvesting, environmental monitoring, and tracking of contaminants.

As a part of their research, Hsieh and her team plan to construct a ten foot by ten foot flow tank capable of simulating ocean-like flows in a laboratory setting.  Laboratory testing will allow her team to validate their theory in a controlled environment before embarking upon more costly open-ocean testing of their control strategies on full-sized underwater robots.

“The ocean is large and its dynamics is complex. So it’s much more efficient if you take advantage of large teams of mobile robots that can simultaneously take measurements at multiple locations and combine that information to give you a global picture of what is going on,” Hsieh said.

If successful, Hsieh and her team’s research could have a large impact on the way that we think about navigating in the ocean.

“At the end of the day the ocean impacts our day-to-day lives on land, but much of our understanding of the ocean is still in its infancy,” Hsieh said.

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