September 23, 2015

Contact: Amy Hewes

Cal Poly Researchers Map Shipwrecks with Underwater Robots

SAN LUIS OBISPO — A research team from Cal Poly and Harvey Mudd College recently traveled to Malta to deploy underwater robots to help map coastal shipwrecks and develop innovative technology for marine archaeology.

The expedition was organized as a joint International Computer Engineering Experience (ICEX) program. In late August, students from Cal Poly and Harvey Mudd collaborated with accompanying faculty, local experts and archeologists, including Timmy Gambin from the University of Malta.

“Being located in the Mediterranean Sea between continental Europe and northern Africa, the island nation of Malta and its coastal waters are home to a large number of historical wrecks,” said Zoë Wood, a computer science professor at Cal Poly.

Historically, identifying shipwreck sites has been a slow, hazardous and labor-intensive archeological endeavor — but that’s changing. “The project goals were to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle system for intelligent shipwreck search, mapping and visualization,” she said.

Using a diving team and autonomous underwater vehicles at three sites, the Cal Poly and Harvey Mudd researchers gathered data in video format that will be processed into 3-D photogrammetric imagery, photography that will enable the researchers to map and measure distances between objects.

In addition to Wood, the team included Cal Poly computer science students Katie Davis and Ian Dunn, and Harvey Mudd engineering major Apoorva Sharma and engineering professor Chris Clark.

Clark co-founded ICEX about six years ago as an international learning experience for computer science students at Cal Poly, where he was teaching at the time. When he joined the Harvey Mudd faculty in 2012, it created an opportunity for collaboration between the two institutions. This year marks the fourth time he and Wood have taken students from their respective schools to Malta to advance research in autonomous systems, including underwater robots and multi-robot systems.

The technology developed in Malta has applications not only to archaeology, but also to oceanography, biology, homeland security and defense.

Faculty and students will present research findings to the public, and a digital archive of sites will be created for the archaeological community.

The trip is supported by instructionally related activity funds from Cal Poly and by the Jude and Eileen Laspa Fellowship Program in Engineering Systems. Future research in Malta will be supported by a recent grant from the National Science Foundation, funded under the umbrella of the ICEX program.

For more information, visit the Malta research blog and the website for Clark’s research lab, the LAIR.


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