Research & Innovation

Brendan Englot and Long Wang Receive $375,000 USDA-NIFA Award to Fund Underwater Robotics Research

The project aims to enable autonomous offshore aquaculture by developing novel underwater robotics technology

Brendan Englot, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Long Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, recently received a USDA-NIFA award of $375,000 for the project “Collaborative Research: NRI: Ocean-Powered Robots for Autonomous Offshore Aquaculture.” Englot will serve as Principal Investigator (PI) for the project and Wang will serve as co-PI. The project seeks to develop an autonomous, ocean-powered robotic system to support offshore fish farming, which opens new possibilities for advanced technology to aid the proliferation of domestic aquaculture.

Although it is the leading global consumer of aquaculture products, importing 90% of its seafood from abroad, the United States globally remains a relatively minor aquaculture producer. While most underwater drones used in aquaculture require intensive manual piloting and supervision, this project adds a new dimension of autonomy and physical interaction capability by proposing novel hardware and software solutions, combining manipulation and perceptual modules.

“When you think of agricultural robotics, which is a fast-growing area, you probably do not think of the ocean! However, aquaculture is a key area for strategic growth that has the potential to reduce our nation's reliance on imported seafood,” Englot said. “By incorporating autonomous robotics technology into their operations, offshore fish farms have the potential to operate in an increasingly efficient, sustainable and cost-effective manner. We are excited to develop new robotics and autonomy solutions that can help this become reality. In particular, it will be an exciting challenge to build a novel underwater mobile manipulation platform capable of cleaning and maintaining a fish farm, and designing its operations so that all of the power consumed can be harvested from ocean wave energy.”

The successful completion of this project will advance robotics technology in offshore aquaculture, alleviating the harsh and dangerous workload for human divers and increasing overall fish production. It will also help grow the US presence in the aquaculture industry (over $500 billion of global market value) and significantly boost the blue economy.

If the project succeeds in meeting its goals, “tethered underwater drones will navigate to the fish pens regularly and autonomously to clean the fish pen fencing and to collect dead fish,” Wang said. “A surface vehicle (robot boat) will harvest energy from ocean waves to sustain the underwater drone missions, which makes long duration offshore operations possible.”

To ensure that the proposed research captures realistic operational constraints, produces solutions of feasible cost, and remains relevant at every stage to the needs of real-world offshore fish farming, the team will establish and engage an industry advisory board composed of leaders from the aquaculture industry throughout the course of the project. Additionally, the plans and outcomes of the proposed project will inform impactful educational outreach activities, including the incorporation of research outcomes into graduate and undergraduate course curricula, the recruitment of a diverse array of undergraduate and K-12 students to foster interest in STEM careers, and the delivery of an annual in-water technology demonstration of the proposed system to a large public audience.

This project is part of a collaboration between the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Stevens.

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