Olin SCOPE Team Helps ROV Pilots Explore Ocean Depths

June 10, 2021

Amy Phung ’21, Cali Wierzbanowski ’21, Everardo Gonzalez ’21, Nathan Shuster ’21 and Erika Lu ’21 spent the 2020-2021 academic year designing a virtual control room for the ROV Doc Ricketts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

In a collaboration with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute made possible by the Dassault Systemes Foundation, this Olin senior capstone (SCOPE) project “hopes to reimagine how ROVs are piloted and make room for new modes of collaboration that are only possible in VR,” explained Phung.

Olin students developed this virtual control room by overlaying navigational data on the ROV’s environment, allowing pilots and scientists to explore what the ROV encounters. In developing this state-of-the-art software, they increased professional skills, learned new technologies, incorporated human-factors design, and created a first-of-its-kind tool to enhance our understanding of the world’s ocean environments.

Following the team’s end of year presentation, faculty advisor Lynn Andrea Stein noted the collaborating ROV Pilot described the Oliners’ work as “the future of control rooms” for scientists and robot operators in this kind of deep-sea research. After successful testing in the MBARI tank, they plan to take this work out to test in deep ocean this summer, the first time this kind of virtual reality control will be used in deep ocean research.

The ROV, which can dive far beyond the depths human divers can reach, is used to collect samples at depths of up to 4000m under the ocean. “What makes this project really interesting is that it's an experiment in seeing what's possible in the field of ocean research,” said Gonzalez. “This should make ROV missions more effective for exploration, sampling, surveying, and many other elements of ocean research and ocean preservation.”

An image capture of the SCOPE team's ROV VR display.

An image capture of the MBARI / Dassault Systemes Foundation SCOPE team's ROV VR display.

“One of the reasons I love this project is that MBARI (through our SCOPE team) is trying to increase ocean awareness by creating something new, educational and absolutely amazing,” said Wierzbanowski. “The software we’re working on will likely become open source after its completion, allowing more research institutions, companies, and ROV or VR enthusiasts to push new ways of incorporating VR into research and education even further.”

Eric Martin, a member of the MBARI ROV piloting team, was excited by the work accomplished by the Olin SCOPE team, which will contribute to the optimization of their data workflows and communications. “Our team of Olin students has been extremely engaged, and the process has led to a lot of positive accomplishments developing with some features that we wouldn’t normally have time to experiment with,” said Martin.

“Working with our SCOPE team has been delightful!” said Kakani Katija, MBARI principal engineer and SCOPE project liaison. “Their inquisitiveness, curiosity, and energy have all been brought to the table and has made this project very exciting to work on. The virtual control room is still a work in progress, but there should be a functioning environment we’ll be flying with in only a few short months. It’s exciting!”

Katija added, “While our team is working out the specifics of deploying virtual reality on deep sea robotic platforms (a hugely technical task), that leaves us little time to work on features that will improve and expand the functionality of the technology beyond the original science use case. It’s been great to see the students start with a concept and run with it.”

Lu enjoyed the creativity ingrained in this project. “MBARI does things differently in that they take an experimental approach and encourage us to explore new technologies. Some really cool features were born from that, such as a miniature virtual model of the ROV that turns when the real one does,” she said. As for the future, “This project has made me change how I think as a software developer. I used to be focused 100% on ‘simple and robust.’ Now, I realize that at some point you have to experiment to see what’s possible with the new tech out there.”

The Olin team completed their SCOPE presentation before graduating from Olin in May and had a poster accepted to the 25th annual conference of the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges, Northeastern Region (CCSCNE) in April 2021. Their poster, “Developing a Control Room in Virtual Reality (VR) to Improve Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Piloting” was also selected for inclusion in the Undergraduate Research Competition to be held at the conference.

Olin College is an international leader in hands-on project-based engineering education. SCOPE is a senior capstone program in which teams of Olin students collaborate with an external sponsor to produce a meaningful development, supporting student learning in a professional context. Past projects have resulted in patents, publications, and new directions for sponsoring organizations.