How I Sea – Engineering Marine Robotics With John M Reyes

Source: The TerraMar Project

Photo: John M Reyes


Meet John M Reyes (JM for short), a graduating senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. JM studies has spent the past four years learning about marine robotics through his studies in mechanical and ocean engineering. Originally from Texas, JM has some great insight and advice for aspiring scientists. 

How does a teenager from Texas become inspired to study marine robotics at MIT?

I’ve always been drawn to the sea – even though I understand coming from central Texas that might sound out of the ordinary.

I was lucky enough to scuba dive for the first time in fourth grade, and in high school I went on a live-aboard trip on a sailboat in the Florida Keys. This trip set up through Boy Scouts was my first real exposure to marine biology and conservation. It’s incredible how small experiences like those can connect you so powerfully to the sea.

When I first arrived at MIT, my sights were set on robotics. But the ocean engineering program held a week of pre-orientation programs testing out small ROV designs that caught my attention, and I was immediately hooked.

So what exactly did you research in your time at MIT? Tell us all about robots and the ocean!

The project I became a part of was dedicated to filling a gap in research on Earth’s Ionosphere – the layer of Earth’s atmosphere that’s ionized by the solar radiation.

Interestingly, the Ionosphere is measured around the world by scientific stations, but all of these are located on land! This means they have a limited scope, and there are large gaps in data over our oceans (specifically the Pacific). It’s incredibly difficult to build long-term monitoring stations on the Pacific Islands, so MIT Lincoln Laboratory teamed up with a group in the Marshall Islands to solve the problem.

Our goal was to create an autonomous surface vehicle (‘robot boat’) that can stay at sea for 6-18 months, and house the hardware necessary to monitor the Ionosphere remotely while transmitting information back to shore.

How do you design a ‘robot boat’, and what made your different from other autonomous vehicles being developed today to explore the ocean?

Well, the first ad greatest challenge is to make these robots seaworthy. The Pacific Ocean hosts some of the scariest, gnarliest waves and storms on the Planet, so how do we create something that can withstand the wrath of the sea?

A big chunk of the work we did went into waterproofing the vehicle, ensuring the safety of the electronic equipment.

To prevent the vehicle from flipping during intense wave action, we used a ‘Reverse Pendulum’ design – where all of the heavy stuff (the batteries, sensors) were stored underwater in a lower haul (box) that’s attached to the upper haul (float). This box acts as a centralized mass so that when winds and waves could cause the structure to flip, the mass would pull the structure downward, ensuring that it remains right-side up.

marine robotics

Photo: John M Reyes

The vehicle altogether weighs about 1,000 pounds, but the lower haul itself holds 60% of that weight.

The reason we needed to have our vehicle float on the surface rather than operate below-water (like other autonomous vehicles) is because the communication tools needed to be above water. We included an AIS system for monitoring other vessels, a GPS system for navigation, a radio communicator for individuals in the Marshall Islands to actually communicate with the vessel.

What roadblocks did you run into while creating this design?

Waterproofing and biofouling were both major issues in designing a vehicle that can survive in the ocean.

When a vehicle is floating at a slow speed on the high seas, you really need to account for the organisms that will latch onto-and grow on any structure. Open ocean species are designed to seek out floating structures as habitat and an oasis from nothingness.

As much as we love life in the sea, we don’t want it on our vehicle because it damages the structure, and can hinder its performance. If enough biomass grows on the structure, it could throw off the buoyancy and ruin a very expensive machine.

The best way to bio-foul a vehicle like this would be to coat the outside in Copper – which is quite repulsive to marine life.

Other challenges we faced were problems that any group encounters – such as working together as a team to reach deadlines.

marine robotics

Photo: John M Reyes

What was the most important thing you took away from your experiences?

This project was great preparation for the real world.

We had a sponsor where we had to meet their demands, while also meeting our own goals as a team. Our team of 10 individuals with different strengths and weaknesses prepared me for the interpersonal communication required for success in any work setting.

The project was about getting the vehicle working, but also about successfully managing our team and reaching a shared goal.

What advice would you give to an aspiring marine scientist?

Follow your passion and use your talents for something bigger than yourself.

My family was always hesitant about me becoming an ocean engineer because it’s unfamiliar, and a bit off the beaten path. But don’t be afraid to seek out those opportunities and pursue what makes you happy.

I found support through my fellow students, and the great connections I’ve made with the faculty at MIT. Talk with your mentors regularly, and take chances on cool internship opportunities!

How I Sea is a new effort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.

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