As the Chemistry-Kayak (affectionately known as ChemYak) swept the waters of the Arctic Estuary, Victoria Preston was glued to a monitor in a nearby boat, watching the robot’s sensors capture new data. She and her team had spent weeks preparing for this deployment. With only a week to work there, they took advantage of the long summer days to collect thousands of observations of a hypothetical chemical anomaly associated with the annual retreat of the ice cover.
The robot moved up and down the stream, using its chemical sensors to detect the composition of the flowing water. His numerous measurements revealed a short-lived but massive influx of greenhouse gases into the water during the annual “flush” of the estuary as the ice melts and recedes. For Preston, the success of the experiment was an encouraging statement of how robotic platforms can be harnessed to help scientists understand the environment in fundamentally new ways.
Growing up near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Preston learned the importance of environmental conservation from an early age. She became passionate about how next generation technologies could be used as tools to make a difference. In 2016, Preston received his bachelor’s degree in robotic engineering from Olin College of Engineering.
“My first research project was to create a drone capable of taking non-invasive hit samples from expiring whales,” says Preston. “Some of our work required us to do automatic detection, which would allow the drone to find the vent and follow it. Overall, it was a great introduction on how to apply fundamental concepts of robotics to the real world. “
Preston’s undergraduate research prompted her to apply for a Fulbright Award, which allowed her to work at the Biorobotics Center in Tallinn, Estonia, for nine months. There she worked on a variety of robotics projects, such as training a robotic vehicle to map an enclosed underwater space. “I really enjoyed the experience and it helped shape the research interests I have today. It also confirmed that higher education was the next step for me and the job I wanted to do, ”she says.
Discover geochemical hot spots
After completing his Fulbright, Preston began his doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics and applied ocean physics and engineering as part of a joint program between MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Her co-directors, Anna Michel and Nicholas Roy, helped her pursue both theoretical and experimental questions. “I really wanted to have an advisory relationship with a scientist,” she says. “It was a priority for me to make sure that my work would always be a bridge between the goals of science and engineering. “
“Overall, I see robots as a tool for scientists. They take knowledge, explore, bring back data sets. Then the scientists do the real job of extracting meaningful information to solve these difficult problems, ”explains Preston.
The first two years of his research focused on how to deploy bots in environments and process their collected data. She has developed algorithms that could allow the robot to move around on its own. “My goal was to understand how to harness our knowledge of the world and use it to plan optimal sampling paths,” says Preston. “This would allow robots to navigate independently to sample in regions of great interest to scientists. ”
Improving sampling trajectories becomes a major advantage when researchers are working under limited time or budget constraints. Preston was able to deploy his robot in the Wareham River in Massachusetts to detect dissolved methane and other greenhouse gases, the by-products of a wastewater treatment chemical feedstock, and natural processes. “Imagine you have a ground infiltration of radiation that you are trying to characterize. As the robot moves, it may receive “waves” of radiation, ”she says.
“Our algorithm would be updated to give the robot a new estimate of where the leak might be. The robot responds by moving to that location, collecting more samples, and potentially finding the biggest hot spot or cause of the leak. It also creates a pattern that we can interpret along the way. This method is a major advance in efficient sampling in the marine geochemical sciences, as historical strategies involved collecting random bottle samples for later analysis in the laboratory.
Adapt to the demands of the real world
In the next phase of his work, Preston incorporated an important element: time. This will improve explorations that last for several days. “My previous work was based on the strong assumption that the robot enters and that by the time it is finished, nothing is different in the environment. In reality, this is not true, especially for a moving river, ”she says. “We are now trying to understand how to better model the evolution of a space over time. “
This fall, Preston will be aboard the Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel Roger Revelle in the Guaymas Basin, Gulf of California. The research team will launch autonomous, remote-controlled underwater robots near the bottom of the basin to study how hydrothermal plumes move through the water column. Working closely with engineers from the National Deep Submergence Facility and in conjunction with his advisers and research colleagues at MIT, Preston will be on board and lead the deployment of the devices.
“I am eager to demonstrate how our algorithmic developments work in practice. It’s also exciting to be part of a huge and diverse group who are willing to try this, ”she said.
Preston has just completed his fourth year of research and is starting to look to the future after his PhD. She plans to continue studying marine and other climate-affected environments. She’s motivated by our plethora of unexplored questions about the ocean and hopes to use her knowledge to scratch its surface. She is drawn to the field of IT sustainability, she says, which is based on “the idea is that machine learning, artificial intelligence and similar tools can and should be applied to solve some of our challenges. more urgent, and that these challenges will change the way we think about our tools.
“It’s a really exciting time to be a roboticist who also cares about the environment – and to be a scientist who has access to new tools for research. I may be a little too optimistic, but I think we are at a crossroads for exploration.