Testing the waters

Graphic of the Earth with swirling currents in the oceans.

Autonomous – or robotic – ocean vehicles have become indispensable when it comes to tasks like coastal mapping, environmental monitoring, harbor and port security and oil field surveying. Yet, according to Montclair State Mathematical Sciences Professor Eric Forgoston, unpredictable and variable currents, weather events and other random influences can make it difficult to position autonomous underwater and surface marine vehicles.

Forgoston received a $299,987 grant in July 2014 from the National Science Foundation for a three-year project to ultimately improve transport control capabilities by addressing the challenges of positioning these vehicles in ocean waters. His project, “Transport of inertial particles in time-dependent and stochastic flows,” will develop computer models of fluid flows and mathematical models of control to determine the best ways to position unmanned ocean vehicles.

“It is important to study the transport of inertial objects in flows because autonomous ocean vehicles and other robotic unmanned sensors have mass that must be accounted for,” Forgoston says. “Objects in moving fluids rarely go with the flow. Instead, they may sink, swim or steer in order to reach a destination, or they may respond to other influences, including their own sizes and shapes.”

Forgoston, the project’s principal investigator, is collaborating with Montclair State Mathematics Professor Lora Billings and Philip Yecko of The Cooper Union on laboratory experiments that will use precisely tuned fluid flows and remotely controlled particles to capture the important effects of a vehicle’s mass, size and shape.

According to Forgoston, taking advantage of the ways that real objects interact with flows enables a wide range of technologies. “On small scales, micro robots may be steered inside the human body to perform surgery. On the largest scales, ocean drifters may monitor currents, marine life or global weather patterns.”

The project has broad-ranging implications for the future. Forgoston explains, “The payoff is significant in that a better-monitored ocean is advantageous to fishing and shipping, the military and environmental monitoring.”