When you build a house, you do not use only a hammer, but a variety of specialized tools in an organized and collaborative manner to construct a complex structure. The same idea holds true in oceanography, and as such, Principal Investigator João Tasso de Figueiredo Borges de Sousa of the Laboratório de Sistemas e Tecnologias Subaquáticas (LSTS) from Porto University and his team are working to construct a network that manages multiple autonomous vehicles simultaneously. At the Subtropical Front, located approximately 1,000 nautical miles off the coast of Southern California, the multidisciplinary team will work towards establishing a new method for observing dynamic, constantly changing ocean systems and processes with autonomous vehicles that are constantly in contact with themselves and a remote control center.
In oceanography, “Fronts” are sites where drastic changes occur within the properties of waters, such as areas where warm masses of water meet cold currents. In this area of vastly different conditions, the team will deploy several autonomous vehicles to find, track, and sample various physical, chemical, and biological features of the ocean, on time-space scales not previously possible by ship or aircraft studies alone.
The planned course of action builds on innovative open-source communication and autonomy software developed by LSTS that enables networked vehicle systems to operate independently while still working towards a common goal. A major component is on-board Artificial Intelligence (AI) based planning and execution control, which will be used to coordinate with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), unmanned air vehicle vehicles (UAV), and autonomous surface vehicles (ASV) to perform complex sampling tasks. At times, multiple vehicles will work in a combined effort.
The international team will be made up of researchers from LSTS and CIIMAR from Porto University in Portugal, Technical University of Cartagena in Spain, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Norway, and Harvard, University of Rhode Island, and Lamond-Doherty Observatory in the United States.
Research vessel Falkor will be an important part of the expedition as well, not just a passive launch pad. A serious obstacle in ocean robotics work is sending instructions and receiving feedback over long distances underwater – delays and disruptions are common using traditional transmission methods. Therefore, another goal is to develop more effective means of correspondence in such communications-challenged environments.
Falkor will act as a “nerve center” permitting mixed initiative planning and execution control by having human operators in the planning and execution of the control loops. This will happen by extending Falkor’s communications systems with underwater and radio communications (including satellite communications) to form networks over a wide area of operations. A shipboard Ocean Space Center (OSC) will be interfaced with Falkor as part of a ship-based integrated networked vehicle system (SINVS). This will allow several capabilities, such as real time updates of coordination and communication software and opportunities for the High Performance Computing System (HPCS) to be used for data assimilation and modeling. Last, there will be communications “nodes” formed by robotic vehicles that route data dynamically to other nodes based on network connectivity and the routing algorithm in use. The aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles will periodically connect these local networks to Falkor using Disruptive Tolerant Network (DTN) protocols.
Unique to this mission, an anthropologist will be onboard looking at how best to organize the interactions among the engineers, scientists, and vehicles as the robots gain higher levels of intelligence and autonomy. This expedition will foster a deeper interdisciplinary understanding of oceanic fronts, eddies, and other hydrographic features on temporal-spatial scales not previously possible by using autonomous tools. Additionally, the team will be able to document, digest and report changes using vehicles with deliberative planning capabilities to accommodate intermittent communications in the field.