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Researchers are creating underwater robots to study microplastics and map the ocean

Christopher Morency, PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, is securing a robot he helped build to collect data underwater. He and a team of researchers were testing the robot at Claytor Lake in August, 2022.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
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Christopher Morency, PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, is securing a robot he helped build to collect data underwater. He and a team of researchers were testing the robot at Claytor Lake in August, 2022.

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.

One of the underwater robots that was designed by researchers at Virginia Tech.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
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One of the underwater robots that was designed by researchers 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.”

Dan Stilwell is a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Stilwell is director of Virginia Tech’s marine autonomy and robotics program, and is part of the interdisciplinary team working on the project to improve technologies that can study the ocean.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
/
Dan Stilwell is a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Stilwell is director of Virginia Tech’s marine autonomy and robotics program, and is part of the interdisciplinary team working on the project to improve technologies that can study the ocean.

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.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: September 5, 2022 at 9:51 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.