Researchers are creating underwater robots to study microplastics and map the ocean
Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing underwater robots, to be able to map the ocean and study the impacts of microplastics, which are broken down bits of plastic pollution that are filling most of our waters, and could be posing health risks to humans and animals across the world.
“Right now the systems that are currently exploring the deep ocean are really large, really expensive, and require an entire ocean ship to support it,” said Dan Stilwell, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Stilwell is director of VT’s Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics program, and is part of the interdisciplinary team working on the project to improve technologies that can study the ocean.
He and two PhD engineering students recently tested out one of their robots as it dove beneath the surface of Claytor Lake in Pulaski County. The robot is bright-yellow and shaped like a missile. It can go more than 1600 feet deep, but on this day, they tested it at a depth of about 9 feet. It was built using 3-D printers at Virginia Tech.
The robot glided, then dipped underneath the water, then practiced doing figure eights along the edge of the lake. It’s learning how to orient itself—and the team is testing whether robots can work collaboratively, together, to map huge areas of the ocean.
“We’re trying to figure out how to reduce the logistics footprint to something really small,” Stilwell said. “Deploy a lot of vehicles, with very little surface support, and have them work for months at a time.”
Several sponsors are interested in the technology, including two alumni who made a $2 million donation to the project. This fall an interdisciplinary group of researchers— led by geoscientist Robert Weiss — will begin a four-year project to use the robots to collect data on microplastics in Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay.