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Where Theory Meets Practice: LSU Professor Develops Marine Robotic Methods for Oil Spill Study

Mathematician Michael Malisoff partners with Georgia Tech and College of William and Mary

LSU's Michael Malisoff developed marine robotic methods allowing autonomous robots to conduct surveys on the weathered crude oil off the coast of Louisiana, which were then successfully tested by a team from Georgia Tech.
Fumin Zhang/Georgia Tech

It sounds like a science fiction film: in the wake of an epic disaster, robots are unleashed into a dangerous environment to assess the aftermath, while humans receive and analyze the results from a safe location. No matter how fictional it seems, that’s exactly what happened after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Michael Malisoff, LSU professor of mathematics, partnered with a colleague at Georgia Tech, Fumin Zhang, and Mark Patterson from the College of William and Mary, to develop marine robotic methods for conducting surveys on the weathered crude oil off the coast of Louisiana.

Basically speaking, Malisoff develops mathematical methods to guide robots in a constantly changing environment such as the ocean, where currents, temperature and weather can change in a flash.

“I work on methods that control behavior in engineering systems,” said Malisoff. “I developed new techniques that account for time delays that occur in the at-sea environment, which are key for coordinated marine surveys with minimal human intervention.”

While Malisoff focused on developing new mathematical techniques,  Zhang and his team of Georgia Tech students built robots and tested them in Grand Isle, nearly a year after the spill occurred. The machines, which were capable of detecting pollutants and taking sediment and water samples, were released into the waters of the Gulf ,while their human controllers remained out of harm’s way. Zhang and his students spent 20 days in the field with their robots, and coordinated their robots with another marine vehicle that was developed by Patterson’s College of William and Mary students.

“These sensors were specially designed to detect crude oil,” said Zhang. “We found that there were still pollutants in the water a year later. Ed Overton [LSU professor of environmental sciences] analyzed the samples and found suspicious levels of carbon hydrates, too.”

The robots developed through this grant were able to detect oil in the Gulf more than a year after the spill.
Fumin Zhang/Georgia Tech

The work was funded originally through a National Science Foundation, or NSF, Rapid Response Grant following the oil spill in order to develop a faster mechanism of response to such disasters. Once the grant expired, the NSF engineering directorate continued Malisoff’s support for another three years in recognition of his important work on autonomous control systems. Malisoff  is working with three Ph.D. students, including Aleksandra Gruszka, whose research focuses on autonomous curve tracking under uncertainty.

“We are working on developing fundamental theory of uncertainty and delays to manage marine robots,” said Malisoff. “This type of science is extremely important and adaptable. By modifying the sensors on Fumin’s boats, we hope to use the robots to detect harmful algal blooms or for other autonomous forms of underwater research.”

The new NSF support will allow the research team to continue the theoretical work to enhance practical applications. While robotics might sound very futuristic to some, it’s a very real alternative to risking human health and safety.

“The whole purpose behind using these machines is to keep humans out of harm’s way,” said Malisoff. “Right now, we still need humans in the vicinity to oversee their actions, but the next generation won’t need such close supervision.”

Once the theories are fully developed and tested, the applications for such technology are very broad.

“Bridging the gap between theory and practice on coastal problems is an issue of great importance to Louisiana and all the other Gulf Coast states,” said Malisoff. “It’s a strong reminder about the relevance of mathematics. It really does drive technology.”

For more information about the project, visit the group’s website at http://users.ece.gatech.edu/~fumin/GrandIsle.html.