Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Office of Naval Research Support Extends and Expands Robotic Eel Project at UNO with $400,000 Grant

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University of New Orleans researchers are helping the U.S. Navy improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for shallow water and coastal environments with technology that has the potential to reduce risk exposure for military personnel. Brandon Taravella, associate professor in UNO’s School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, and Kazim Akyuzlu, professor in UNO’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, recently received a 3-year, $418,000 grant to continue and expand Taravella’s previous research on the “anguilliform-like swimming motion of an undulating propulsor,” also referred to as the robotic eel project.

The significance of the robotic eel project is tied to changes in naval warfare. Naval researchers need tools to help them conduct monitoring and data collection in harsh or dangerous conditions. The U.S. Navy also has a strong interest in developing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can carry sensors into dangerous environments without being detected. Taravella’s former adviser William Vorus, professor emeritus at UNO, developed a theory directly related to these aquatic challenges. Vorus predicted that a particular shape swimming in an anguilliform (eel-like) motion could do so with high efficiency and little resistance and would generate no wake, or detectable trailing swirls in the water. Taravella’s previous work tested Vorus’ wakeless propulsion theory using a robotic eel to achieve the ideal shape and desired motion. One potential naval application of this work could be a new type of AUV able to travel long distances on low power. According to Taravella, there has also been recent interest from the oil and gas industry in the use of unconventional remotely operated underwater vehicles, such as an anguilliform swimmer. The robotic eel could be sent into waters where humans cannot venture for infrastructure inspection, such as deep waters surrounding oil rigs off coastal Louisiana or inside of pipelines.

Taravella’s work on the robotic eel dates back to 2011 when he received a 3-year, $937,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to design and build it. Taravella and his research team then began testing the prototype, which consisted of a series of battery-powered links covered in a water-tight blue latex membrane. Testing was conducted in UNO’s 125-foot tow tank facility using video, frame by frame, to document the eel’s motion. The following year Taravella received an additional $280,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense to purchase sophisticated equipment that would use a series of lasers and cameras to analyze the movement of the water particles around the eel robot. While research to date has focused on what was happening in the water in the eel’s wake, the new award will allow Taravella to examine what happens to the water particles near the robot eel’s skin as it moves.