CAREER: Autonomous Underwater Power Distribution System for Continuous Operation

National Science Foundation

Success of numerous long-term robotic network missions in space, air, ground, and water is measured by the ability of the robots to operate for extended time in highly dynamic and potentially hazardous operating environments. The proposed work responds to the urgency for development of innovative mobile power distribution systems that lower deployment and operating costs, while simultaneously increasing mission efficiency, and supporting the network’s need to be responsive to changing physical conditions. The overall CAREER goal is to develop a power distribution system that responds to individual robot needs, as well as, overall robotic network goals to guarantee persistence of long-term operation in uncertain and unstructured environments.

The proposed work is informed by the hypothesis that network persistence hinges on the ability to establish stable energy transfer cycles necessary to accomplish coverage specifications, while simultaneously dealing with physical and environmental constraints. To test this hypothesis and as an example of such a system, this work will focus on creating a reliable autonomous recharging system for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that enables continuous real-time marine observation and data collection in the presence of continuously changing underwater environmental circumstances. The key challenges are two-fold: there are fundamental hardware challenges connected to energy transfer in the harsh underwater environment, but more importantly there are basic network science needs that are novel to a mobile power network. The specific research thrusts for this CAREER work include: 1) Task and Energy Routing Scheduling for Persistent Mission Planning. 2) Efficient Network Path Planning and Coordination to Accomplish Persistent Mission Plan. 3) Experimental Validation through Test-bed Development. 4) Design-based, Research-integrated Education Plan for Broadening Underrepresented Participation in STEM.

Intellectual Merit:
This project builds a roadmap to achieve robust continuous marine autonomy that advances unmanned marine systems ability to perform autonomous long-term missions. More specifically the proposed work will provide: 1) resource based task scheduling, 2) path planning formation for mission and charging, and 3) integration tools for testing. Expected outcomes will overcome the current challenge of significant interruptions during underwater missions due to battery limitations and recharging needs. Through this CAREER proposal, the Pl will establish the theoretical, computational, and experimental foundation for mobile power delivery and onsite recharging capability for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). The developed power distribution system will be able to reconfigure itself depending on the scope of the mission, as well as, the energy consumption needs of the network, the number of operational AUVs and required operation time, recharging specifications, communication and localization means, and environmental variables.

Such a system will play a vital role in real-time controlled applications across multiple disciplines, such as: sensor networks, robotics, and transportation systems where limited power resources and unknown environmental dynamics pose major constraints. All developed tools will be suited for the capabilities of not only low-cost AUVs with limited sensing and computational resources, but also high-tech AUVs with state of the art sensor packages.

Broader Impacts:
The developed active power distribution system focuses on underwater scenarios, but will be transferrable to space, air, and ground missions as well. This type of feasible power distribution solution can be used to optimize: 1) immediate high-risk disaster recovery missions like the Fukushima nuclear plant accident; 2) search missions that require vast underwater inspection and detection like the Malaysia MH370 passenger aircraft; and 3) long-term space observation and monitoring like that of the lunar skylight or Europa space mission. The findings from this project will be disseminated through publications, software sharing, and technology commercialization. The project provides interdisciplinary training opportunities for graduate, undergraduate, and pre-college students, including those from underrepresented groups. Research activities will be integrated with education through curriculum development, outreach and improved GUPPIE design.

Investigator: Nina Mahmoudian