Dr. Yi Guo Wins NSF Grant to Deploy Autonomous Robot Teams That Monitor Oil Spills

Innovative robots cooperatively track oil propagation more accurately than current technology.

Hoboken, NJ, November 21, 2012 --(PR.com)-- Seeking to provide more comprehensive technological support for agencies charged with the clean-up of oil spills, Dr. Yi Guo of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology has won a grant from the NSF to improve oil plume data collection by deploying heterogeneous ocean robots (including wave gliders, unmanned surface vessels, and autonomous underwater vehicles) to detect and monitor underwater oil propagation.

The sudden release of millions of gallons of oil due to an accidental spill or leak can devastate ocean and shoreline ecosystems. The April 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig leaked 205.8 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing $38 billion dollars in damages and clean-up costs.

Governments, corporations and researchers are continually making efforts to reduce the quantity and severity of these disasters and improve emergency response.

“With an estimated 1.3 million metric tons of oil annually released into the sea, oil spills and discharges are ongoing problems that require organized and efficient responses,” says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. “Dr. Guo’s innovative distributed robotics will establish more effective strategies to collect and disperse oil in future spills.”

Dr. Guo will develop distributed multi-robot deployment algorithms for autonomous underwater vehicles. These robots will be able to cooperate and maneuver themselves without human input in order to map and monitor an underwater oil plume. They can then get the real-time sensor input of important parameters so that the source of the leak is pinpointed and the oil propagation is more accurately charted. “The vehicles will sense and identify parameters in the oil plume propagation model and adjust their position accordingly in real time. We are using an iterative process that continually revises the tracking, making our models more accurate than any technology currently available.”

Presently, ocean robotic deployments are limited to individual robots, and the algorithms for autonomous vehicles have usually applied 2D models. Motivated by the gap in theoretical development and field deployment for distributed robotics, Dr. Guo aims to apply the most advanced approaches to urgent field operations. “This research represents multifaceted advancement because 3D modeling in underwater and aerospace applications is more complex than 2D modeling, and algorithms that consider group dynamics to control a team of robots are far more intricate than those that consider the dynamics of a single robot.”

In addition to the algorithms and simulations in development, the project also includes an experimental aspect. Brian Bingham, Dr. Guo’s collaborator at the University of Hawaii’s Field Robotics Laboratory, will test a new wave glider prototype that will serve as the leader of the team of unmanned vehicles. The wave glider has a two-part design, with a float at the surface connected to a submarine with vertically oscillating “wings”. The wave glider solely uses the endless power of the ocean’s waves for propulsion, making it an excellent candidate for leading and anchoring the robot team.

PhD candidate Shuai Li is working with Dr. Guo to reengineer the vehicle team’s communication topology from “all-to-all” to “neighbor-to-neighbor,” which is more reliable, efficient and robust. Shuai is working to require only that the robots communicate with their nearest neighbors, working up to a team consensus. Instead of sending messages to every member of the group, each robot sends a message to neighbors in order to communicate with the whole team. This establishes scalability in the algorithm, as each additional team member requires minimal extra overhead.

According to Dr. Yu-Dong Yao, Director of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, “The educational component of this research gives our students a great opportunity to apply their ingenuity to an urgent international concern. The capabilities established in this research potentially allow responding agencies to more comprehensively understand where oil plumes will go and focus their efforts to respond more efficiently to a disaster.”

About Electrical and Computer Engineering
Stevens Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is home to a distinguished faculty conducting research on cutting edge hardware and software, supporting new horizons in wireless and multimedia networking, cognitive radio, and signal processing. Funded research on campus and active partnerships between departments and regional institutions provide students with rich opportunities to explore problems on the horizon in electronic and data technologies.

Learn more: www.stevens.edu/ses/ece
Stevens Institute of Technology
Christine del Rosario