Using Robots to Map Icy Frontiers

ECE/MIE Professor Hanumant Singh uses his team of seafaring robots to collect data in extreme environments, helping us better understand climate change.

Northeastern engineer Hanumant Singh and his collection of sea-diving robots add new depth to our understanding of climate impacts

Main photo: The autonomous underwater vehicle, SeaBED, is deployed in Antarctica to map the underside of sea ice. Image Courtesy H Singh © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Like most engineers in the academic world, you’d expect Northeastern University professor, Hanumant Singh, to start his day in an office or lab: in his case, on the fifth floor of the university’s new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, with his drones, machines and team of 14 graduate students. But Singh isn’t your average engineer.

He and his toolkit of expensive robots are globetrotters, traveling to far off places like the fjords of Greenland, the coral reefs of Puerto Rico and sites of Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. Or sometimes, he’s just a short trip away at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, where he serves as a scientist emeritus. But most often, Singh can be found where most humans never go: the North and South poles.

“There’s this concept called polar fever,” he says. “[They say] once you go to the Arctic, the Antarctic, nothing else matters. It just draws you in.”

A marine robotics expert and the director of Northeastern’s Field Robotics Lab, Singh develops machines made to collect data in remote environments. The tools are then deployed by researchers and used for studies in fisheries management, conservation, archeology and more. In recent years, Singh’s group has worked on climate-related projects, including studies on chinstrap penguin populations. He’s best known for his field robotics research with polar ice, most notably with SeaBED, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) he designed as a researcher at Woods Hole.

Built for sea ice measurement, SeaBED captures high-resolution images and maps ice from deep below the water’s surface. Using this robot is a clear departure from traditional sea ice measurement methods, which typically involve manually drilling a hole through the ice sheet and dropping a tape measure down the column — a process that can pose technical challenges for researchers.

“You might think you’re at the bottom, but you’re not,” says Singh, about the tricky nature of this conventional technique.

The idea for SeaBED emerged out of necessity. Diving into an Antarctic sea ice study, Singh found that nothing already on the market fit the project’s criteria. He and his team at Woods Hole knew there was a better way.

“The only reason we built them is because they didn’t exist,” he says. “If you look at most underwater vehicles, they look like torpedoes,” which allows them to move quickly and efficiently through the water. Instead, Singh needed his AUV to hover in place, like a helicopter, so that the device could gather accurate readings of sea ice thickness or detailed sonar maps of the seafloor.

“There were all these other design constraints,” says Singh. On top of its unique mobility skills, SeaBED also had to be compact and easy to carry for shipping purposes. Most AUVs on the market were large, clunky and expensive to bring around. Singh’s, on the other hand, could be disassembled and packaged in FedEx boxes, making the journey to far-off expeditions simpler and cost-efficient.

Since first launching in 2013, SeaBED has been used in all the world’s oceans.

Of all the places he’s worked, Singh is most drawn to projects happening in the freezing cold corners of the world. He’s lost count of how many times he’s visited the polar regions, but estimates it’s somewhere between 15 and 20 expeditions.

Singh’s approach to conducting field studies is practical: Design your machines to do things humans cannot, send them out to do the work and above all, don’t get attached. While it’s never the goal to lose a device — the price tag can sit around $750,000 for each robot — Singh has learned to expect and tolerate some robotic casualties. That’s because it can be difficult to retrieve the vehicles, especially given the harsh nature of the environment in which they operate. For Singh, it’s actually an exciting obstacle in a field he jokingly refers to as “dull, dirty and dangerous.”

“The first law of field robotics…is that when you deploy a robot, you should get it back, because if you don’t, you have a big problem,” says Singh. “But the second law of robotics says that if you never lose your robot, you aren’t pushing the limits!”

Singh has been transcending boundaries in marine robotics since 1988, when he came across an opportunity to work as an intern at Woods Hole. After the internship, he completed a master’s there, and then a doctorate in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That’s when the engineer encountered National Geographic Explorer and marine archeologist Bob Ballard. Ten years after his discovery of the Titanic, Ballard hoped to revisit the shipwreck for further analysis and was leading a lab at Woods Hole to conduct imaging of the archeological site using robots. Singh joined the team as an assistant professor, responsible for all things data and analysis.

Now, years after dipping his toes in the marine engineering space, Singh’s work has stretched to include land-based projects. Since joining Northeastern’s College of Engineering as a professor in 2016, his lab has acquired an autonomous car, which is used for teaching as well as research. The lab is currently working with the United States Department of Defense to study the vehicle, looking to better understand the safety of self-driving cars in the future.

Singh recently got his robotics gear back from a research deployment in Antarctica, where his team used camera technology attached to an airplane to conduct surveys of the region and its icy landscape. They are currently analyzing the data, and by August, he and his team plan to embark on an expedition to Svalbard, one of the northernmost inhabited communities on Earth, for another robot-assisted study on global ice melt.

“You know, you’re trying to do something which is really hard,” says Singh. “You get doing it, and then you lose the vehicle. Then you recover the vehicle and, in the end, everything works out.”

by Elisabeth Hadjis, Northeastern Research

Related Faculty: Hanumant Singh

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering