Photos by Evan Krape June 21, 2021
UD alumnus Bryan Keller reflects on journey from computer science to career on the ocean
As an undergraduate studying computer science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), Bryan Keller said he thought that he had his life all mapped out on a simple, straightforward path. First, he would finish his degree in computer science, and afterward, he would find a steady job in information technology that would allow him to write code for a living.
That plan was thrown out the window pretty early on, once Keller got a glimpse of what that life would be like.
“I received a good internship in Harrisburg writing code and got offered a full-time position upon graduation,” said Keller. “But I did the cubicle thing, working 9-to-5 and it was terrible. I realized that wasn’t what I wanted.”
Instead, Keller ended up attending the University of Delaware to get his master’s degree in oceanography, which would eventually land him a job working as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) operator for Ocean Infinity, a world-leading marine robotics company.
The road to the sea
Luckily for Keller, he had been required to take a natural science class as part of his computer science degree, and he ended up taking a basic oceanography course where he met Katie Farnsworth, associate professor in IUP’s Department of Geoscience.
Through his talks with Farnsworth, Keller realized that he wanted to have a career related to the ocean, but having spent four years on his computer science degree, he didn’t want to waste it.
“I got to talking with Katie, and she actually had a similar background to mine. She had a bachelor’s in computer science then went on to do marine science,” said Keller.
Through Farnsworth, Keller was introduced to Art Trembanis, professor at UD’s School of Marine Science and Policy, who had visited IUP to speak about his work using AUVs to gather data on the coral reefs surrounding the Caribbean island of Bonaire.
When it came time to apply for graduate schools, Keller set his sights on going to graduate school for oceanography or marine science and focusing on the robotics side of things. He applied to UD and was accepted with Trembanis serving as his adviser.
At UD, Keller worked on Trembanis’ Bonaire coral reef research project for his master’s thesis.
“I processed all the data from that job, used that as part of my thesis and then was able to go to Bonaire for two weeks and do some ground truthing of my data by scuba diving up to four times a day, which was awesome,” said Keller.
His time at UD and Trembanis’ connections opened a lot of industry doors for Keller and upon graduation, he was able to secure a job at UTEC Survey, an independent offshore and onshore survey provider.
“I never even knew jobs like this existed until I met Art and he introduced me to what it could be,” said Keller. “I just knew if I took computers and the ocean and put them together with these remote systems, there’s got to be a job out there somewhere. But it was really Art and the University that opened the door for getting into the industry side of things and what could be done with that as far as a career.”
That job at UTEC involved him completing AUV surveys all over the world with jobs in Nigeria, Angola and also some work in Australia.
After nine years at UTEC, Keller decided to join Ocean Infinity (OI) in 2019.
With OI, Keller works on the ocean for sometimes as long as 12 weeks at a time, working on a boat that is 450 feet long and can hold up to 102 personnel.
OI launches multiple AUVs at a time to conduct its underwater surveys — the most they’ve ever sent out at one time is eight — and after launching the AUVs, Keller and his co-workers will program what they want the AUVs to do, where they want them to survey and what sensors they want turned on.
“Basically, it comes down to seafloor mapping,” said Keller. “We drop that system off the back of the boat and monitor it as it dives down to the bottom. The AUVs that we work with are rated to 6,000 meters depth, and we’re usually working close to that.”
Keller will drive an AUV down to the bottom of the seafloor and then put it into autonomous mode. The programmed AUV will know where it’s supposed to go and what area of seafloor it’s supposed to cover. It’ll run for approximately 100 hours on its batteries before being recovered. The AUVs run at 3.5 knots and so Keller and his fellow operators know approximately how much area they can cover in 100 hours.
Turning a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment loose on the seafloor can be a bit nerve-wracking and Keller said that one of the axioms of AUV operators is that boring is good.
“If there’s something exciting going on, something is usually going wrong because it’s a completely unmanned system,” said Keller. “You let it go, you let it do its thing.”
All in all, Keller is glad to put his computer science degree to good use and work with robotics equipment on the ocean, forging great relationships with his shipmates, rather than being stuck inside a cubicle writing code.
“In the past 10 years approximately that I’ve been doing this, I’ve been to 32 different countries, six of the seven continents and sailed on almost all of the oceans and seas,” said Keller. “There’s definitely some stuff I’ve crossed off my bucket list.”
OI and UD
OI signed a memorandum of understanding with UD and now, as OI expands its partnership with UD and looks to get more operations up and running in the United States, Keller is excited to be back on campus once again working with Trembanis.
Specifically, Keller and Trembanis are working on getting four state-of-the-art ASVs up and running on UD’s Lewes campus in order to provide students and professors with hands-on learning opportunities while at the same time, allowing OI to tap into the expertise at UD to see how it can advance the capabilities of the ASVs. To read more about the academic-business collaboration, please read this UDaily story.