Students design, build surf-zone robot
- LMAR takes a test spin at Bradford Beach
Building a robot may seem like the stuff of science fiction or childhood dreams. But for a group of students at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, it’s all in a day’s work.
The students are developing a remotely controlled robot that will help researchers study Lake Michigan’s surf zone, the area just offshore where waves break. The surf zone is difficult for researchers to access because it’s often too cold and turbulent to wade into, and too shallow to approach by boat.
The Lake Michigan Amphibious Robot, dubbed L’MAR for short, tackles this problem head on: it’s designed to be driven down the beach and directly into the water to collect data and samples so that humans don’t have to.
“The thing that’s unique about this robot is that it’s developed specifically for scientific monitoring,” said Brian Ardaugh, an electrical engineering alumnus who worked on the project for his master’s thesis. Other surf-zone robots are primarily used by the military for beachhead surveillance and mine detection.
Ardaugh’s advisors for the project were Tom Consi, associate scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute (GLWI), and Adel Nasiri, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Consi said the robot is a significant step in his lab’s efforts to develop technology that enables new science on the lake by increasing access to the lake in both space and time.
Ardaugh and his fellow students completed the first-generation version of the robot this past summer. L’MAR I had a boxy steel frame outfitted with a mast for radio communications and sealed canisters to hold the robot’s motors, batteries, electronics, and water sampling equipment. The 423-pound vehicle rode upon a pair of tracks and measured temperature, pressure, and tilt.
In an initial test in the surf zone at Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach in July, L'MAR I successfully crept down the beach, into the water some 30 feet, and back, as instructed by Ardaugh via computer. It also collected its first water temperature and pressure data. However, during the outing, debris lodged in one of the robot’s tracks, damaging it.
That led to the design and development this fall of L'MAR II, which sports treaded wheels instead of tracks. “We also put L’MAR on a diet,” said Consi, cutting about 70 pounds from the robot’s weight by using lighter parts. The group also upgraded to a more powerful computer, which they are currently reprogramming.
Next semester, the group will work on developing the robot’s navigation system, which is its final fundamental piece, said Consi. Then their focus will shift to making the robot more intelligent and versatile.
The students credit the project with giving them real-world experience and knowledge. “It was a great learning experience because it had a little of everything in engineering—mechanics, software, electrical,” said Ardaugh. “As a whole that makes me a better engineer than if I worked on one specific area.”
Ardaugh said the L’MAR project also factored into his interview at Ion Beam Applications, located in Warrenville, Illinois, where he now works as a systems engineer.
Other students who have been or still are involved in the L’MAR project are: computer science undergraduate Samuel Bingham; electrical engineering undergraduate Trevin Erdmann; and mechanical engineering undergraduates Mark Matson, John Ringstad, Andrew Vechart, and Chris Verink. Matthew Peterson, a geosciences undergraduate from UW-Parkside, also participated in the project this past summer through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at GLWI.