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New robot to enable underwater exploration

Arthur C. Trembanis with a scale model of his new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle
NEWARK, DE.--University of Delaware researchers soon will be able to explore the Atlantic Ocean and the region’s waterways through the use of a new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), a highly advanced submersible robot equipped with a variable payload of sophisticated scientific equipment.

The 83-inch long, 200-pound robot, which resembles a torpedo, is being designed by Sias Patterson LLC and built at the company’s Yorktown, Va., facilities for delivery by mid-December, according to Arthur C. Trembanis, assistant professor of geology and director of UD’s new Coastal Sediments Hydrodynamics and Engineering Laboratory (CSHEL).

Trembanis has dubbed the robot DOERRI, short for the Delaware Oceanographic and Environmental Research Remote Instrument, and said it “will provide an unprecedented platform for research and teaching activities.” He said he is always looking for the “squeaky wheel” students who are eager and motivated to help push the scientific and technical boundaries.

AUVs are unmanned, untethered mini-submarines that are capable of being trained to conduct missions in rivers, lakes, estuaries and the open ocean. In recent years, Trembanis said, they have moved quickly from an emerging to an applied technology

DOERRI will be capable of missions up to 30 hours in duration and depths of 500 feet, making it well suited for coastal research throughout Delaware and the Mid-Atlantic, out to the edge of the continental shelf.

It carries a suite of high-powered computer systems that enable it to “learn” as it operates and to make its own decisions once underwater and out of reach of radio communications. For instance, if DOERRI comes across an unexpected barrier, it can decide to back up and chart a new course.

Because the DOERRI offers a modular platform for the quick exchange of instruments and sensors, Trembanis said it would allow for collaboration with researchers from a wide variety of colleges and departments on campus, including geology, biological sciences, chemistry and biochemistry and engineering.

“One day, DOERRI can be outfitted with chemical sensors to sniff out algal blooms or oil spills, and the next day we can switch to a suite of sensors to map ocean topography or check the sea lanes for hazards,” Trembanis said.

Trembanis said the robots “are ideally suited to conduct work in places and under conditions that standard ship-based efforts and divers are not.” They can work under hazardous conditions, from hurricanes to chemical spills, collecting vital information that otherwise might be lost.

The list of potential uses is long, and includes the study of hurricanes and other storms, coastal erosion, sediment transport, algal blooms and hypoxia, ocean exploration and fisheries stock assessments. “Now, stock assessment methods are somewhat crude,” Trembanis said. “Basically, researchers toss in a net and count the fish. DOERRI can follow the fish, move with them and identify them on the fly.”

DOERRI also will enable improved coastal observations, Trembanis said. UD is involved in an effort to provide a continuous observation network along the coast, providing real-time information on the condition of waterways, and he said AUVs could complement fixed-point sensors with their ability to cover large areas of water. “If a fixed sensor records low oxygen levels, that can trigger an AUV to go out and map the oxygen levels of the adjacent underwater region,” he explained.

AUVs also have national security applications, with the ability to inspect ships and port facilities and undertake mine countermeasures.

They also have the potential to provide for environmental safety by searching shipping lanes for unseen hazards, such as the abandoned anchor that ripped a hole in the hull of the oil tanker Athos I on the Delaware River in November 2004.

Trembanis said CSHEL would serve as an AUV development center for Sias Patterson, helping to integrate new sensors and develop new behaviors.

Eventually, he said he hopes to expand the fleet to between six and 12 vehicles stationed on the UD campus in Newark and at the College of Marine Studies campus in Lewes.

Trembanis and representatives of Sias Patterson will be on hand during the UD College of Marine Studies’ annual Coast Day event on Sunday, Oct. 2, in Lewes to demonstrate two AUV units.

Trembanis grew up on the Puget Sound and, given his Greek and Norwegian heritage, said a career involving the sea was a natural. He received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, where he developed an interest in beaches and coastal processes, was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia, and earned his doctorate from the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Trembanis did postdoctoral work at the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution.

Article by Neil Thomas
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson