As a roboticist, Ryan N. Smith has monitored algae blooms off the coast of Southern California and mapped the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Smith uses robots to gather data in dangerous and toxic environments where it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for humans to explore. That data is then passed along to biologists, marine biologists, ecologists and oceanographers.
“Robots are used for the three Ds: dull, dirty and dangerous,” he said. “I focus on dirty or dangerous, such as going underwater or to other places humans can’t go.”
Smith is professor of physics and engineering at Fort Lewis College, specializing in control theory and path planning for autonomous underwater vehicles.
Autonomous robots are machines capable of performing tasks without explicit human control.
Using sensors and side-scan sonar, robots are able to measure water temperature, pH balances and efficiently create three-dimensional images of underwater environments.
Smith is the winner of the 2017-18 Fort Lewis College Featured Scholar award for his work to monitor water quality across the region.
“Fundamentally, I am a roboticist, but I also focus the core of my work on marine and aquatic robotics,” Smith said. “I like to get wet, and one of the reasons I focus on water is because it is extremely important.”
Before moving to Durango in August 2013, Smith lived and worked in California, Hawaii and Australia – all places that make sense for someone who focuses on marine research.
So why would a guy focused on underwater robotics move to land-locked Colorado?
“I am arguably in the water more here than when I lived near the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “We have a water issue here. We have to store all the water we use, and storing that water has implications and ramifications that have to be monitored and managed.”
The Gold King Mine spill in 2015 triggered a heightened public interest in water quality across the Southwest.
Smith has since collaborated with the city of Durango to place robots in Rogers Reservoir, the source of Durango’s drinking water.
“We have some live data feeds that come out of the reservoir, which initiated after the Gold King Mine spill,” he said. “One of the things the city was interested in was how much water was in the reservoir. We used robots to measure the depths, and we passed that information over to them to create a volumetric estimate.”
Working alongside the Bureau of Reclamation, Smith and his students deploy robots on Lake Nighthorse to use as a testing facility.
“We are testing some planning algorithms on the lake,” he said. “One student is working on planning for optimal coverage, or maximizing the information we can get and minimizing the time the robot is in the water.”
That student is Jordan Brenner, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s of science in engineering.
Brenner signed a contract with the college after graduation to work on robotic development at the Robotic Guidance and Navigation for the Observation and Monitoring of the Environment Laboratory on campus.
“One reason I came to Fort Lewis was the small class sizes,” he said. “Professors will often include students in their work. Not only could I take classes and learn about theory, but I was able to apply it and conduct research, which is not typically offered to undergraduate students.”
Smith said the opportunity for students to get hands-on experience at the lakes and reservoirs in Durango is an important component of the engineering program at FLC.
“It is very expensive to deploy in the ocean, upwards of $100,000 per day,” he said. “Here, we can validate our algorithms without the potential of losing the robot. We can test a lot of our algorithms in these real-world environments that are close to the school.”
The Bureau of Reclamation recently contacted Smith to gain insight on sending robots into abandoned mine corridors to create 3-D reconstructions.
“Every year we have a yearlong senior design project, and I try to find real-life motivating problems that will benefit our community and society,” he said. “The state is wondering how we assess these mines, and is asking experts for recommendations. I gave this project to my seniors, and we are doing a feasibility study.”
Smith’s students are studying which types of robots could explore mines, what sensors they would need, and what the risk/reward ratio is.
“Underground mines and underwater are similar environments because there is no GPS and there are limited communication capabilities and limited vision,” he said. “I push a button, the robots disappear, and I hope they come back. We are experimenting with novel platforms to get robots into locations where humans are prohibited to go because of structural integrity and air quality.”
The team traveled to the Red and Bonita Mine above Silverton to study the environment the robots would eventually be deployed in.
“Those mines have constant water running through them,” Smith said. “There are also points where the air quality is very bad. There are collapses that you cannot get by, and it is extremely dangerous.”
James Wadel is the project manager for the senior seminar project, which is in the research and development phase.
“We are intending to develop an aerial vehicle to navigate the mines,” Wadel said. “The robots will produce 3-D maps so that structural stability can be assessed. We will have a solid base and a prototype that shows potential, and have tested it in mine-like environments by the end of the semester.”
Wadel said Smith presents his students with seemingly insurmountable challenges, but he helps them to succeed.
“I have a lot of respect for professor Smith because he has an incredible record,” he said. “He has worked on so many robotic programs. I value his experience, and he sets very high standards for his students.”
Most of the robotics used by Smith and his students are purchased commercially and vary in price. More complex robots with underwater capabilities cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other components, such as circuit boards, are made in the Robotic GNOME Laboratory on campus.
Smith’s projects are currently funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.
“Together they have provided about a million dollars in funding thus far for student projects,” he said.
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story included a photo caption that mistakenly described a robotic craft as an underwater vehicle. It is a surface vehicle. Also, funding for Ryan N. Smith’s robotic projects come from the National Science Foundation, not the National Science Foundation’s STEM Talent Expansion Program.