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Marine Robots – Bringing the Future to Ocean Observations and Monitoring

Posted by Allison Chua and Liz Kerrigan on January 15, 2020 in News
CERC.OCEAN PhD student and team lead, Allison Chua (right), and mechanical lead, Piotr Kawalec, putting underDOG in the water at the OHMSETT oil spill testing site in New Jersey (Photo by: Tom Coolbaugh)
CERC.OCEAN PhD student and team lead, Allison Chua (right), and mechanical lead, Piotr Kawalec, putting underDOG in the water at the OHMSETT oil spill testing site in New Jersey (Photo by: Tom Coolbaugh)

Allison Chua, a CERC.OCEAN PhD student, is studying how low-cost marine robotic vehicles can be used to collect data where serious limitations occur for typical oceanographic instrumentation. Size, spatial limitations, cost, speed of deployment, and length of deployment can all be limiting factors when oceanographic conditions are being measured; this is particularly relevant for adverse environments (e.g. polar regions), or when a fast response is needed (e.g. marine oil spills). Over the last decade, small, inexpensive, and open-source computing systems have been developed that can be modified and integrated with most ocean sensors and platforms, removing some of the current limitations in data collection and response time. These innovations have helped reduce the size and cost of Remotely-Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), which are allowing researchers, like Allison, to build the new generation of oceanographic tools, unburdened by the same cost and spatial limitations as the current technology.

Currently Allison (Project Leader) and her team of CERC.OCEAN researchers (including Project Supervisor and CERC.OCEAN lead: Dr. Doug Wallace, Mechanical Lead: Piotr Kawalec, Electronics Lead: Mike Vining, and Electrical Engineering Lead: Aaron MacNeill) are working on underDOG (clever acronym TBD), a micro-AUV being developed for a rapid response to mesoscale, evolving, and transient oceanic phenomenon. Basically, it’s a fancy underwater robot that is being developed so that someone can toss it into the ocean and study events that are constantly changing, may last a few days and are less than 100 km in area.

One of the perfect challenges for underDOG is monitoring marine oil spills, events where traditional oceanographic monitoring and response are lacking. The containment of oil spills is complicated by the variability of oil’s behaviour – which can differ based on the oil type, source, or environmental conditions. As part of a multinational collaboration on oil spill research, Allison and her team were invited by ExxonMobil to the Ohmsett Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey to assess their custom sensor integration work on a test platform, a Blue Robotics BlueROV2. This meant that they were able to run their ROV alongside oil spill testing in this large saltwater outdoor wave tank (the largest in North America) (OHMSETT) to gain experience taking underwater measurements in a controlled, but realistic, marine environment. Allison and her team will use the experience they gained from the ROV and apply it to the AUV with the eventual goal of presenting underDOG with a real-world challenge, to see how it would perform in a real marine oil spill scenario.

To test this they modified the ROV to carry three different fluorescence sensors ((1)Seabird SeaOWL UV-A, (2) Turner Cyclops 7O, and (3) Chelsea UV AquaTracka), tuned to detect crude oil in seawater under different oil release scenarios. Additionally, to verify oil presence, the sensor data was compared to real-time, high-definition ROV video.

Allison and the rest of the underDOG team extend a huge thank-you to ExxonMobil for inviting them to the Ohmsett Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey, where they were able to run our ROV alongside their tests.

News coverage of underDOG: