ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
ECE News

AUV to Host Biochemical Sensors for Monitoring Waterways

Researchers in ECE and Aerospace and Ocean Engineering are developing robotic underwater vehicles and robotic boats for monitoring of biological and chemical agents. The mobile, robotic biochemical sensors will support military and homeland security efforts, with potential additional applications in industrial and environmental monitoring.

The Virginia Tech researchers have teamed with the Center for Bioenvironmental Research (CBR) at Tulane and Xavier Universities on the project, which is funded by the Office of Naval Research. Tech’s share of the funding for 2005 is $500,000.

The team is pushing existing technology to enable the biosensing platforms to cooperate as a group without human supervision. A principal goal of the project is for networks of autonomous sensor platforms to autonomously reconfigure and optimize a sensing task, such as rapid large area surveys, or smaller high-fidelity surveys once a target chemical species has been detected. Further, the team is expanding the ability of autonomous sensor platforms to autonomously navigate dynamic and unknown environments such as rivers and estuaries, according to ECE’s Dan Stilwell, the principal investigator for the project.

“Currently, autonomous marine vehicles are limited to operating with preprogrammed paths in static and open waters,” he explained. “They cannot operate in unknown or dynamic environments where they must make decisions during a mission without human supervision. Autonomous marine vehicles are also incapable of operating effectively in groups,” he said.

Goals for the CBR this year include development of biosensor packaging suitable for small marine robots and further development of their biosensor technology for new chemical species. Virginia Tech researchers are developing algorithms for fully autonomous navigation in dynamic waters and algorithms that enable platoons of cooperating vehicles to rapidly map chemical concentrations and other physical features of interest to environmental scientists and the military.

Tech’s researchers are continuing development of the world’s smallest, least-expensive autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), while also building a new robotic boat for long-term deployments in rivers and estuaries. The goals for future years include demonstrating navigation and cooperation technology with platoons of autonomous vehicles and fully integrated biochemical sensors.

“There is a critical need for autonomous sensors that can operate in complex and changing environments,” Stilwell said. “Our unique multi-disciplinary team of investigators is ideally suited to overcome the many science and engineering challenges that must be addressed.”

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