Discovery Files

AI-powered underwater robots revolutionize marine conservation, NSF-funded researchers lead the charge

The underwater environment, covering nearly 80% of the planet, is critical in maintaining ecological balance and supporting human well-being. Effective conservation relies on thoroughly understanding underwater species distribution and ecosystem dynamics, which can be time-consuming and costly.

A team of U.S. National Science Foundation-funded researchers at the Minnesota Interactive Robotics and Vision Laboratory seek to overcome these challenges by developing advanced autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that are powered by artificial intelligence to collect vast amounts of data, provide detailed insights into species distribution, and create comprehensive habitat maps for understanding environmental drivers.

These innovations will be tested on a new AUV platform, MeCO, which features multiple sensors and modular components. The team hopes to accurately identify and track invasive species, such as Eurasian watermilfoil and various seaweeds common in Minnesota lakes.

Junaed Sattar diving with MeCO during a week-long sea trail in the Caribbean Sea.
Credit: Junaed Sattar, University of Minnesota
Junaed Sattar diving with MeCO during a week-long sea trail in the Caribbean Sea.
"Our project is about making underwater robots more effective tools for scientists and conservationists. With improved vision and localization, these robots can better understand and protect our underwater environments, which is crucial for ecological balance and human prosperity," said Junaed Sattar, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Robotics Institute, and principal investigator on the project.

MeCO is an open-source project, and researchers expect to make it available to the research community and the public soon under open-source licenses.

This transformative research project stands to significantly advance the fields of oceanography and underwater environmental sciences, providing powerful new tools for the preservation and management of vital aquatic ecosystems.