Unique fleet of underwater vehicles to gather elusive environmental data

Blacksburg, Va., -- A fleet of miniature underwater vehicles being developed by Virginia Tech researcher Dan Stilwell will enable scientists to gather environmental data off the coast of Virginia and in the Chesapeake Bay.

Stilwell, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, has received a $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a $300,000 Young Investigator Program award from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to support his research.

Stilwell's goal is three-fold: to develop a low-cost miniature autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), to develop a mathematical theory that describes how AUVs can cooperate, and to deploy a fleet of vehicles that can gather environmental data that otherwise would be impossible to collect.

"One of our field sites is Hog Island Bay off the coast of Virginia. This bay serves as a natural barrier to man-made pollutants," Stilwell said.

Separated from the Atlantic Ocean by barrier islands, Hog Island Bay is the site of a long-term NSF ecological study. However, researchers haven't been able to collect certain critical data about the health of the bay. That data--including dissolved oxygen, which is used to estimate the metabolism of plants and organisms that live in the bay--has proven elusive with traditional collection methods.

"The difficulty is that changes in dissolved oxygen must be measured over periods of one to two hours and across the entire bay," Stilwell explained. This will require several autonomous vehicles working cooperatively--one vehicle acting alone cannot cover the bay quickly enough to collect a scientifically valid sample.

Stilwell's research for both the NSF and ONR is aimed at creating the first miniature AUVs capable of operating effectively as a group. "Cooperation between autonomous vehicles is the one of the major advancements my graduate students and I are pursuing," he

Contact: Dan Stilwell
Virginia Tech

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