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The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Grant finances aquatic robot

A Drexel University mechanical engineering and mechanics professor received the 2012 Young Investigator Award in April for her proposal to advance and utilize robots for ocean exploration.

Funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the award grants M. Ani Hsieh and her laboratory team $510,000 for their project.

Hsieh and her team from the Scalable Autonomous Systems Laboratory are one of the award’s 26 recipients chosen from over 300 applicants. They are working to develop ways to use teams of robots to map current patterns in the ocean. These patterns are important because they affect both surface and underwater navigation as well as biological and physical processes, such as the rise and fall of red tides.

Sporadic satellite imaging, sampling using stationary buoys, and sampling using small numbers of autonomous robots are currently used to estimate temperatures and current patterns of other regions. The patchy placement of these current samples provides little information that can be applied to other regions of the ocean, resulting in pricey robots encountering unforeseen conditions and damages.

With the award and the grant money, Hsieh’s project aims to understand how current patterns can improve autonomous underwater robotic navigation. She wants to discover ways to use currents to form fuel-efficient paths for underwater robots. However, Hsieh emphasized that the differences between land and sea will undoubtedly present some challenges.

“Operating underwater is a different paradigm than operating on land. The way fish do things is very different from how we do things,” Hsieh said.

Robot collaboration is of high interest in this study, and Hsieh has a mission to develop robots that are properly suited for a marine environment. Such robots must be small in size and have the ability to float.

“Robots are about perceptions; new ways to perceive. Different senses of perception make autonomous underwater navigation very difficult,” Hsieh said.

Hsieh takes pride in knowing that Drexel’s program tests theories in the lab before taking the experiment to the real world. That is why the majority of her research is to be completed using a tank that her team built on campus.

Ideally, this tank will be able to generate current patterns similar to those in the ocean. Using the tank to test algorithms first can save the cost of robots being damaged or lost in the ocean — a rational idea considering that the cost for each robot ranges between $50,000 and $500,000.

However, the costs of the robots will need to be reduced in order for Hsieh’s plan of robot “teams” to become a reality. Within the next five to 10 years, Hsieh hopes to be able to translate her current research to the ocean.

While this may sound like a long time away, Hsieh said, “The lab makes you better prepared.”

In fact, Hsieh attributes her receiving the award to Drexel’s reputation for proving theories with experimental work before taking greater action. She believes it is this that distinguishes Drexel’s program from the rest.

Hsieh also believes the new perspective her proposal delivers is what makes it attractive.

Notably, autonomy and unmanned systems are one of nine focal areas outlined in the Naval Science and Technology Strategic Plan, making Hsieh’s proposal incredibly relevant to current naval interests. Marc Steinberg, a program manager in ONR’s Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department, is in charge of overseeing Hsieh’s research.

“Dr. Hsieh is developing a multidisciplinary line of research by bringing together her prior work in multirobotic systems and control with a more recent interest in using distributed autonomous sensing to better understand ocean environments,” Steinberg wrote in an email.

He continued, “We think the combination of these disciplines could drive advances both in future autonomous naval systems and in better understanding dynamic ocean environments in ways that are important for naval operations.”