LSU Mechanical Engineering Professor Barbalata Uses NSF CAREER Award to Advance Marine Robotics

Edward Morgan and Nenyi Dadson work on marine robotJune 10, 2024 

BATON ROUGE, LA – Underwater robots are essential tools in reaching and exploring this planet’s hidden aquatic depths. Paired with a robotic manipulator system—or more plainly, a robotic arm—they can be used in areas like marine resource exploration and maintenance and construction of submerged engineering structures. However, the high costs associated with these technologies limit scientists’ access to them.

Lightweight underwater vehicle-manipulator systems—or small-sized vehicles with robotic arms whose weight is comparable to that of the vehicle—can lower this financial barrier and make the technology more accessible. That is, if their stability issues can be solved.

Enter LSU Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Corina Barbalata, who is working to improve the robustness and autonomous capabilities of these lightweight underwater vehicle-manipulator systems (UVMS) through her new National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

“When these lightweight robots are deployed in real environments, we don’t know exactly how the environment really is (i.e., what is the water current, how strong are the waves, what is the visibility like), and we don’t have realistic environmental models for these environments,” said Barbalata, who is working on the project with her students Edward Morgan and Nenyi Dadson. “For example, let’s say that I make the robot work very well in the LSU Lakes. However, if I put it in the Gulf of Mexico, its performance will significantly decrease because the water currents are significantly different. But we don’t have a mathematical model in advance that will tell us how different.

“Also, the deeper that we go underwater, there is less and less natural light, until there is … a need for artificial light. Classical RGB optical cameras are limited in perceiving the environment. We want to use a different optical camera, called an event-based camera, mounted on UVMS to perceive the environment and compute the water flow in real-time, influencing the creation of better environmental models and addressing some of the issues I’ve mentioned.”

For this project, Barbalata and her students will use one of the robots in her lab, “Bruce,” a hybrid autonomous, remotely-operated vehicle. The robot will be fitted with an underwater manipulator, allowing it to interact with the sea floor environment. By monitoring these interactions, Barbalata and her team will create stochastic, or randomly determined, models for UVMS that allow for better robotic simulations and more accurate predictions of the robot’s behavior before deploying it underwater. Based on those models, Barbalata and her team will then design algorithms to control the robots and perform tasks like collecting samples from the sea floor and maintenance and construction of underwater structures safely and accurately.

There is one other goal of this project, Barbalata said, and that is to get middle school students, particularly those who may not have financial means, in the mindset of one day attending college.

“Students from lower socioeconomic groups are eight times less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than those from the top socioeconomic quartile,” she said. “There is federal and state support for students to attend college, but not all students from lower socioeconomic categories are aware of this early on. Our goal with this proposal is to make some steps to reduce this gap in Louisiana and motivate middle school students early on to attend college. To achieve this, I will work with the Scotlandville Pre-Engineering Magnet Academy to promote underwater robotics and attract students toward STEM and ocean sciences. The focus will be on children ages 9-13 years old to work on activities where they will build small-scale underwater robots.”

On a more personal note, Barbalata said that she is grateful for the NSF CAREER Award, as well as her graduate students, for allowing her to realize this project.

“I am extremely happy and excited for this award, as it will allow us to advance the state of the art of autonomous underwater vehicle-manipulator robots and share with the community and middle school students the fascinating world of marine robots and how much they can contribute towards the protection of our underwater worlds,” Barbalata said. “I am also very grateful to my graduate students for their hard work and the discussions that we had that helped in clarifying the ideas behind this project.”

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Contact: Joshua Duplechain
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