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MIT Research News

November 4, 2019

Autonomous system improves environmental sampling at sea

Robotic boats could more rapidly locate the most valuable sampling spots in uncharted waters.

Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

An autonomous robotic system invented by researchers at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) efficiently sniffs out the most scientifically interesting — but hard-to-find — sampling spots in vast, unexplored waters.

Environmental scientists are often interested in gathering samples at the most interesting locations, or “maxima,” in an environment. One example could be a source of leaking chemicals, where the concentration is the highest and mostly unspoiled by external factors. But a maximum can be any quantifiable value that researchers want to measure, such as water depth or parts of coral reef most exposed to air.

Efforts to deploy maximum-seeking robots suffer from efficiency and accuracy issues. Commonly, robots will move back and forth like lawnmowers to cover an area, which is time-consuming and collects many uninteresting samples. Some robots sense and follow high-concentration trails to their leak source. But they can be misled. For example, chemicals can get trapped and accumulate in crevices far from a source. Robots may identify those high-concentration spots as the source yet be nowhere close.