Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you chose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon area of research?
I grew up in northern India, which is far from the ocean. I wanted to study engineering and philosophy. In India, the educational system does not support multidisciplinary studies, but I knew you could do this in the United States. A member of my family helped me get to the States, and I went to George Mason University for my bachelor’s degree.
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As an undergraduate, I was planning to become a computer architect. I had been on the ocean only twice. But during the summer between my junior and senior year, I got an internship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and I liked it so much that I decided to become an underwater robotics person.
I got degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, and then I entered the Joint Program between MIT and Woods Hole in which I could mix and match offerings from both institutions. I graduated with a Ph.D. in ocean engineering. This subject brings together a variety of disciplines. I have done work in hydrodynamics, materials, and acoustics, but I remain true to my roots in electrical engineering.
What fascinates you about underwater robotics?
The really cool thing about underwater robotics, and underwater imaging, which is another of my interests, is that it is a field where I can bring all of my experience to bear. Instead of specializing in a focused area, I love to take a long-term and big-picture “systems” view of a problem.
A typical team is not very big, so you get to do all different kinds of things. You actually design the whole robot—its mechanical aspects, its materials, its electrical and computer systems. So you get to see the whole system and design it from scratch.
How has your creative approach fit in with the other robotics projects at WHOI?
I started there in 1989 as a graduate student, and worked on an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) called ABE in the early 1990s. After I completed my PhD, I worked on other robots. Then I became more interested in AUVs that were capable of imaging, so I branched out into building an AUV that had this capability.
We built an AUV called SeaBed to specialize in underwater imaging. From there, we built two vehicles, Puma and Jaguar, for an expedition to the Arcticlast summer during which we used them one at a time. They are the vehicles we are using on this cruise. Now we are interested in using multiple vehicles together. The engineering problems associated with such operations are what I am working on now.
As Chief Scientist for this expedition, how would you describe the overall objectives of this project?
You can take a step back and ask the question—What are the hard problems in underwater robotics right now?
One of big ones is that, when we study the ocean, we have various instruments and vehicles that we use from big ships like this one. But the cost of the ship far outweighs the cost of the equipment. Typically, when we are at sea, we operate 24 hours a day. However, we carry out our work in a serial manner; that is, there is only one asset, such as the CTD or a vehicle, being used at a time. This is not very efficient.
Another problem is that when you work on mid-ocean ridges, you spend a long time—in our case, six days—in transit to the research site. So while we are on site, we need to maximize the amount of work we can get done. One way of doing that is to put multiple assets in the water at the same time, instead of just one. Some people already do that. For instance, they have an AUV doing a survey near the bottom while a tethered instrument or vehicle is deployed from the ship.
But instead of putting one autonomous vehicle in the water, we want to put down ten vehicles. How do you build up to that? The answer is in small steps. We need to understand the navigation and the communications issues associated with using multiple vehicles in the water. We can simulate this on a computer, but we want to do this in a realistic scientific setting. That is why we are doing this experiment at this site—searching for, and hopefully locating, hydrothermal vents.
How did you become Chief Scientist for this cruise?
What commonly happens when you start working on a grant proposal is that one person ends up “leading the charge” and everybody else is helping. So the person who is leading the charge usually ends up being the Chief Scientist of that expedition. That’s what happened here.
Being Chief Scientist is important, but it is a position among peers. On this cruise, we are doing engineering, so it is logical for me to do it. If the focus was on geology it would be someone else, or biology would be another person.
Can you give us an idea of what people in your lab at WHOI were working on about a month before this expedition?
The AUVs had already been shipped, along with all sorts of other supplies, but we were continuing to test our systems on another vehicle back in the lab. We are lucky in that we can hang our equipment in the water from a crane on the dock next to the lab. That allows us to run all the capabilities needed in the ocean right there: acoustic modems, long baseline transducers, transponders, and the vehicle itself.
Since we left port, we have been working feverishly to modify our software and hardware.
How many students are working in your lab?
I have three students; two are here on the cruise with us: Clay Kunz and Chris Murphy. Every year, I also teach part of a class in Oceanographic Instrumentation in the WHOI-MIT Joint Program.
If a young person wanted to consider a career in marine studies, what would you suggest?
I have often been asked this question, and I highly recommend a web site called www.MarineCareers.net that has a lot of information about opportunities and different kinds of work that are available. I would like to emphasize that you don’t have to be a scientist. There are many other ocean science positions. For example, the Third Engineer on this ship used to be a student of mine, but she preferred to be a ship’s engineer rather than a researcher.