MARINE Innovation and the Next Generation

The weeklong “Innovations for the Environment” course, offered in Bermuda from July 4 to 8, was the first summer educational program run jointly between Arizona State University (ASU) and BIOS since they announced their partnership back in October 2021. Thanks to the generosity of lead sponsor RenaissanceRe, ten strong applicants between the ages of 14 and 16 were accepted to participate. A highlight of the course was taking one of ASU’s prototype robotics to North Rock, where students had the opportunity to deploy and pilot the instrument, called RoboBoat, as it mapped the reef below. Photo by James Doughty

A new collaboration between BIOS, Arizona State University’s (ASU’s) Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, and the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) resulted in an exciting learning opportunity for Bermudian students this summer. The weeklong “Innovations for the Environment” experiential training course was offered July 4 to 8 through BIOS’s Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) program, which is part of the Institute’s Ocean Academy.

With support from lead sponsor RenaissanceRe, ten students between the ages of 14 and 16 participated free of charge, on the condition they received a nomination from a local educator, mentor, or teacher outside the formal classroom.

The overall goal of the workshop was to highlight the various types of technologies (aerial, tethered, and autonomous) that are used to understand data collected from the ocean, with a focus on coral reef mapping projects. Leveraging the expertise of engineers and scientists from ASU, BIOS, and WHOI, “Innovations” provided students with hands-on experience building, deploying, and programming a variety of technologies, including aerial and underwater drones, autonomous boats and underwater vehicles (AUVs), and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

“This training allowed Ocean Academy to leverage multiple collaborations to highlight the nexus of research fields, such as marine robotics, marine science, ocean engineering, and oceanography,” said Kaitlin Noyes, director of education and community engagement at BIOS.

“The Expert Innovators”

Joining Noyes as instructors were three members of ASU’s Distributed Robotic Exploration and Mapping Systems (DREAMS) Laboratory at the School of Earth and Space Exploration: Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran, graduate research assistant in robotics and autonomous systems; Jnaneshwar Das, laboratory director; and Rodney Staggers, Jr., a recent mechanical engineering graduate from ASU. Staggers is also a 2022 BIOS Grants-in-Aid recipient who is spending six weeks at BIOS during June and July testing the suitability of the DREAMS lab’s two prototype autonomous vehicles for mapping and monitoring coral reef communities. These two vehicles, a robotic boat (the “RoboBoat”) and an underwater drone (the “UDrone”), were among the technologies highlighted in the “Innovations” course.

Rounding out the instructor list was Ruth Curry, manager of the Mid-Atlantic Glider Initiative and Collaboration (MAGIC) Laboratory, BIOS’s underwater glider program; and Sean Kelley, program manager at NDSF for the AUV Sentry. NDSF is sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to operate, maintain, and coordinate the use of three vehicles used to explore the deep ocean, including Alvin, the first U.S. research submersible.

“New Perspective on Robotics”

The majority of the “Innovations” course was hands-on, in the classroom and the field, both on and under the ocean. The field component provided students with the opportunity to pilot nascent technologies, such as the RoboBoat, and see commercially available technologies, including one of the MAGIC gliders, deployed for real-world ocean science applications.

There were also robotics coding, construction, design, and piloting challenges throughout the week in which students worked collaboratively in small teams to apply their newly acquired skills in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Throughout the week, participants worked in teams on a challenge, in which they prototyped, designed, and built their own remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). The course culminated with an in-water challenge at the BIOS Innovation Pool where teams used their ROVs to perform various tasks that simulated “real-world” scientific missions, such as removing a seagrass restoration cage or taking a sample of seagrass.

The ROV design challenge was a highlight for Anne-Camille Haziza, 14, a rising Year 11 student at the Bermuda High School. Haziza built ROVs at NASA Johnson Space Center (U.S.) during a workshop in 2019 and was able to utilize this previous experience to assist her team during the challenge. Reflecting on her week in the “Innovations” course, she said: “I was able to strengthen my teamworking skills while having hands-on experience dealing with problems that modern scientists face. I also learned the importance of patience and positive communication. This course gave me a new perspective on robotics.”

Nadia and Sage DeSousa, both 14 and rising S2 (U.S. grade 10) students at Cedarbridge Academy, participated in the course together. While Nadia enjoyed the hands-on aspects, such as learning to solder and piloting a drone, it was coding on computers that sparked a real interest for her sister. “My favorite part of the camp was definitely coding in Gazebo,” said Sage. “Gazebo is a program that allows you to simulate objects or machines in environments that usually would cost thousands of dollars to experiment in, but the best part about it is that it's free and really easy to use.”

“A Training Ground for Students”

“Innovations” provided Das and his team with an opportunity to test the DREAMS Lab’s prototypes in preparation for a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) call for proposals in early 2023. The prototypes are designed to operate in tandem to study coral reef community distributions and ecosystem dynamics. Sensors on the RoboBoat collect data on environmental parameters, such as water temperature and conductivity, while a GoPro camera takes photographs of the seafloor and a sonar uses sound waves to gauge depth. Meanwhile, the UDrone follows the underwater terrain to provide contours of the seafloor. When combined, data from the two prototypes form a 3D map of the reef environment through a process called “structure from motion.”

“In my opinion, the use of robotics and artificial intelligence is key to better understanding the environment, and this workshop presented a tremendous opportunity to inspire young minds early in their journeys,” he said. “This was also a chance to test our environmental monitoring robotic systems in the ocean while engaging the students in the improvement of their design.”

“Innovations” instructor Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran (standing), a graduate research assistant at Arizona State University (ASU), helped lead simulation sessions for aerial drones. By using a web-based interface, students could operate the drones in a virtual environment. This was also an introduction to coding, as participants had to use a code language to instruct the drones’ movements.

During the course, DREAMS Lab member Saravanakumaran was primarily responsible for leading the aerial drone portions, introducing students to the basics of quadcopters—helicopters with four rotors—and teaching them to fly palm-sized drones. Along with Das, he helped lead “robot simulation sessions” for the aerial drone and RoboBoat in an NSF-funded web-based virtual environment. These sessions served as a training ground for the students before they piloted the prototypes in the field.

“The whole workshop was a memorable experience for me since it was my first time teaching students of this age,” he said. “I was really amazed by how much knowledge they had, and having them operate our robots and watching them explore gave me new insights, which I will use to upgrade our projects back in the lab.”

Along with Noyes, Staggers, Jr. helped facilitate the “Innovations” course. He also led a series of activities designed to introduce students to the DREAMS Lab’s prototypes, with a specific focus on teaching them to deploy and operate RoboBoat, as well as create a mission plan for it to map a small section of Bermuda’s coral reef. On the final day, students copied the RoboBoat’s mission and mapped the same area by swimming back and forth over the reef on flotation devices outfitted with GoPro cameras. In the near future, Staggers, Jr. plans to compare their map with RoboBoat’s version to showcase the efficiency of automated data collection.

“Innovators” instructor Rodney Staggers, Jr. (center) led participants in a series of activities designed to teach them how to deploy, operate, and eventually create a mission plan for RoboBoat, one of the prototype robotics developed in the DREAMS Lab at ASU. When used in tandem with two other robotic instruments, RoboBoat (shown here) is designed to study coral reef community distributions and ecosystem dynamics.

“Seeing the students excited about the technology we were letting them operate, as well as being inquisitive about our methods, made it apparent that we actually made an impact,” he said. “On the last day of the course, one of the students told me they were glad I came to BIOS. The feeling that something you said or did potentially inspired someone else to follow in your footsteps is just an indescribable sensation.”

“Reflecting on Robotics”

Kelley, an applied ocean engineer, had been scrolling through Instagram when he came across a BIOS advertisement for “Innovations,” prompting him to reach out to Noyes to see if the course could benefit from his expertise. Using spare parts from Sentry, he led a mini-workshop on testing and troubleshooting printed circuit boards, which is how engineers typically coordinate and trigger sonars on a schedule in deep-ocean vehicles.

“The ASU team was great and worked really hard to make their robotics work,” he said. “I thought it was great to see that in action, to see the kids engage in those projects and get a sense of the challenges while working with marine robotics.”

The course culminated in a trip to a local coral reef, where RoboBoat and students worked together collecting photos on GoPro cameras of a small section of the reef, indicated by the boxed region. The ASU engineering instructors stitched together over 1,000 photos utilizing specialized software to create the 3D map shown on the right. This process is called “structure from motion mapping.”

Das contributed to the course with virtual talks and demonstrations from ASU in Tempe, Arizona. And although he received regular updates from Saravanakumaran and Staggers, Jr., he didn’t comprehend the full impact of their efforts until he began processing the photos taken by RoboBoat, as well as the students’ GoPro cameras on the final day. “I started to see the coral reef in 3D, reconstructed from underwater footage,” he said. “That added a whole new meaning to my experience, and it seemed like we had closed a small loop in the exploration and understanding of planet Earth.”

Looking back on the course, Noyes said: “We are very proud of what we were able to accomplish in this training by having teenagers work directly alongside engineers. We hope to continue co-designing and innovating these types of hands-on learning opportunities for these and other talented teens in the future.”