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SCU Engineering News

Air, land, sea, space, and now... algae ponds!

Algae Ponds
From left: Thomas Adamek, Steve Li, Ketan Rasal, and T.J. Leising test sensors for RoboAlgae.

It’s always interesting to check in with the graduate students in the Robotics Systems Laboratory to see what they are working on. This time, in addition to devices for land, sea, air, and space, four students are collaborating with a scientist from NASA to create a control system for RoboAlgae, an autonomous, buoyant sphere (or bot) that can be deployed in racetrack-style algae ponds to monitor conditions, disperse nutrients, and optimize the growing process for the commercial cultivation of biofuels and feedstock produced in industrial algal farms.

Thomas Adamek, Steve Li, Ketan Rasal, and T.J. Leising, all mechanical engineering master’s students, are hard at work testing sensors for the wireless device to take readings on temperature, light, oxygen levels, and other criteria of importance to the algae farmer. “As the bot circulates around the pond,” said Steve, “we get a picture of where the nutrients are and where oxygen is showing up. We correlate this information with the bot’s position, time of day, temperature, humidity, etc.” Thomas adds, “The data is collected and sent to a computer where it is plotted on a graph according to time and location.”

The next step will be to develop a system to control the bots and get them to work together. Ketan notes, “The field applications and research work are fun; I really like that we’re getting hands-on experience.” “Or, in this case, waist-deep experience!,” adds T.J., who enjoys working on a “real project with real customers.”

Steve, who received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and is a seasoned researcher in multi-robot clusters, enjoys the interdisciplinary collaboration that takes place in the Lab. “The kind of skills you learn apply to a wide range of projects. Once you get into solving the problems, you see that there are similarities to something you have worked on before. You can apply your engineering knowledge to solve a wide range of problems. Who’d want to do the same thing over and over again?” Thomas, who is the project lead on the Lab’s SWATH boat research, and has also put his expertise to work on SCU’s solar-powered house, agrees, “That’s why I’m here at SCU, for the mechatronics program. There’s always something interesting to work on. This project is in the early stages right now. We’re not sure at this point what we will achieve and we have a lot of questions for the scientists. It will be interesting to see where this leads us.”

Read more about the Robotics Systems Lab.