May 24, 2016

Andrew and the drone.

Several weeks ago, I was invited to talk at the annual WeRobot conference about underwater robots. From cable laying ROVs to oil rig-inspecting camera systems, the ocean is lousy with robots. The interest isn’t in big robots for industrial work, but rather the small, flexible, agile platforms that we can use to conduct marine science and conservation research. For the last several years, I’ve partnered with OpenROV, a robotics company that builds open-source, inexpensive underwater robots for science, exploration, and conservation, as well as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) education.

Last October, as part of the Ocean First Education Early Career Fellowship, I invited a team of 8 students from our local high school’s robotics team to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to build their own OpenROVs. Over the course of a long weekend, our students assembled these robots from scratch, deployed them in the nearby York River, and learned about piloting underwater robots. At the end of the weekend, the students were able to keep one of the robots they built for ongoing development with their team.

These robots, however, aren’t toys. The OpenROV is a scientific research platform that has been used to conduct numerous biodiversity surveys in Papua New Guinea, examine the impacts of oil spills off the coast of Los Angeles, explore shipwrecks in the frigid water of Lake Tahoe, and take water quality samples from polluted outfalls in Florida. Student powered.The flexibility and ‘hackability’ of these platforms means that they can be adapted to a wide variety of marine and freshwater needs for relatively little cost. As part of my program working with OpenROV, we launched Oceanography for Everyone to support citizen oceanographers looking to develop their own research projects.

To supplement this work, I’ve been developing, in conjunction with Aerotestra, a marine ecology drone capable of water-based takeoff and landing and built to fly in rough marine conditions. This drone will enable us to put an eye in the sky, surveying harmful algal blooms in the York River, shark distribution off the coast of North Carolina, and coastal erosion in the Chesapeake Bay. Developing a new experimental aircraft is not simple, and the marine EcoDrone has had it’s fair share of challenges to overcome, but by this summer, pending approval by the FAA, it will be flying over the Chesapeake Bay and providing support for an array of research projects.

Catch up on Andrew's work with drones and ROVs by watching his recorded webinar here.

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