Torch Bearers

A Perfect Fit

Associate Professor Brendan Englot and his doctoral student John McConnell have brought different perspectives to tackle problems lurking in the ocean’s harsh depths.

You could say underwater robots set Associate Professor Brendan Englot’s career in motion. 

As a doctoral student at MIT, Englot worked with a team of researchers from across academia, industry and the U.S. Navy to develop an underwater robot that could perform a fully autonomous inspection of a ship. The project was intellectually demanding, recalls Englot, now director of the Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence.  

“I realized that there are a lot of tough, unsolved problems in that domain — getting robots to operate in harsh environments where the conditions are inhospitable,” he says. “That work set me on the path that I’m on now.” 

Englot’s research includes developing ocean-powered robots for autonomous offshore aquaculture and learning-enhanced autonomous navigation for GPS-denied vehicles for the Army. But his passion for identifying tough challenges and assembling a diverse team to solve them remains core to his teaching and research. 

That combination of theory and fieldwork is what attracted John McConnell M.Eng. ’20 Ph.D. ’23 to Englot’s team after a brief career working on oil tankers. McConnell wanted to pivot from thinking about day-to-day operations to figuring out how to apply technology to problem-solving. “Stevens gave me the opportunity to grow from my operational roots,” says McConnell, “But what really sealed the deal for me was when I met Brendan. And I thought, ‘Wow. This is grounded in maritime, but new and exciting.’” 

Englot was equally enthusiastic about McConnell: “It’s rare that I get an applicant with his background and experience, so he was a perfect fit.” 

McConnell points to Englot’s habit of posing “challenge problems with crazy big goals” as a catalyst for his own critical thinking in working on projects dealing with robot perception. 

“Brendan is much more comfortable with theoretical solutions — something that maybe hasn’t been proven yet. He’s willing to believe, whereas I need to see and prod it, see where it works, see where it fails,” says McConnell.  

Adds Englot: “Our relationship definitely benefited from having different perspectives. Over time, John increased his knowledge of theory, algorithms and mathematical modeling. Working with him, I learned about the different practical constraints of real-world systems when you want to deploy them in the ocean.” 

In July, McConnell became an assistant professor in the Weapons, Robotics, and Controls Department at the United States Naval Academy. 

“John is the sixth student from my lab to receive his Ph.D. from Stevens, but he is the first one to become a professor, so that is exciting,” says Englot. “I feel proud knowing he’ll be the first academic descendent with his own lab and his own advisees.” 

Says McConnell: “Brendan’s approach to mentorship really helped me be ready to work at an undergraduate-focused teaching institution. He’s been a huge influence."

— Mary Zajac 

Dull, Dirty and Dangerous 

“There are a million reasons why you might want to use an autonomous vehicle [aka, a robot],” says John McConnell, M.Eng. ’20 Ph.D. ’23. “In the underwater sector, it’s really motivated by the dull, the dirty, the dangerous.” 

But how do you create a robot to complete hazardous tasks, like dealing with explosive devices, performing work at deep depths or even doing routine ship maintenance? For Associate Professor Brendan Englot’s team, it might mean getting your feet wet. 

Underwater, robots typically can’t rely on RF signals, GPS or LIDAR. Even cameras provide only a limited range of vision. Englot’s team works to build improved situational awareness and navigation in robots by relying on acoustic sensing. They often test robots in the field, including the nearby Hudson River. 

McConnell’s Ph.D. project involved building advanced perception and mapping capabilities into a robot platform called the BlueROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) that can be used to clean, inspect and maintain infrastructure for offshore industries as diverse as fish-farming or renewable energy. 

Englot calls it “one of the most sophisticated BlueROV robots that exists anywhere.”— Mary Zajac