Great Lakes Robot

Underwater explorer is Freshwater Sciences creation

By Angela Schmitt

Various pieces of L’MAR lie on counters and on the floor of the cluttered lab. On one desk, a student tinkers with a motherboard connected to a Nintendo 64 controller. L’MAR’s robotics lie on a table, waiting to be connected to a wheeled platform. Finally, a tether with a radio transmitter will be attached to the vehicle. With summer approaching, L’MAR will soon be hitting the surf.

L’MAR, which stands for Lake Michigan Amphibious Robot, is a project that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences has been working on for two years.

The leader of the project, Tom Consi, is an assistant scientist at the school. Consi has been working on developing underwater vehicles for years, but he said the L’MAR project is exploring new frontiers.

Scientists have been collecting water samples for years, but they have mostly been confined to the shore.

 “Its hard to understand what is going on in the oceans in lakes because you can't sample enough to see a lot of phenomenon. Traditionally it was boats going out in the water and dumping in buckets.“ Consi explains. “They can’t go out during storms because lightning is dangerous, or at night or in the winter, so even though you can see the surf zone where waves roll over and crash, it’s actually pretty inaccessible. “

The goal of L’MAR is to build a robot that can withstand the harsh conditions of the surf, and still take a variety of samples. The robot would be able to do water sampling for public health, water and sediment sampling, and it will be taking measurements that will benefit many different avenues of Oceanographic science. interesting

Consi got his start building robots as a hobby in grad school. As a post doctorate at MIT there was a new lab forming for underwater robots, he began working there as a research engineer. Run-on sentence At MIT he worked on robots that are commercial products used by oceanographers and the United States Navy.

When he came to UWM in 2004, his goal was to build robots to enable new science. He says he enjoys the challenges that come with pioneering new technologies.

“As a person who makes robots its a really neat research problem because we've got a hostile environment, “ he says. “The waves are crashing and you've got forces from all different directions moving at you, and you've got the substrates moving too, the sand or the mud is going to slide out from under you or you're going to sink down under it.”

In order to combat the sand and mud, L’MAR has a six wheeled, stout, low platformed body, with two large electric motors, and a mast that has a radio link to the scientists on shore who are controlling it. L’MAR also has an on-board computer, and you can put any kind of sensor system on the vehicle.

The road to success has not been easy for Consi and his team of about 10 students.


 “For the past two years we really were focusing on getting the core platform built, well we built it and it failed, so we had to rebuild it, so were on L'MAR 2.” Consi operates on Bradford Beach where the sand is very brutal. Many of L’MARs first test runs were difficult, as the sand and rocks caused the robot to break.

Although the setbacks have been frustrating, Consi still has high hopes for L’MAR.

 “The dream is that the scientist puts it on the beach and programs in say a survey to go into the water and go back and forth over an area and then come right back to where you are, so no going out into a boat or anything like that, that's our dream.”

This upcoming summer of testing in Lake Michigan brings with it hope for Consi and his team, with the lessons from the past summer; they hope to have a new prototype with L’MAR 2 that will withstand the surf. They are even working on new technologies, including a Screw-Drive system, where the vehicle has essentially two large screws instead of wheels, which will be able to navigate soft terrains smoothly.

Consi says the major goal this summer is to get L’MAR out in the water and collecting samples.

“Hopefully this summer we will be in the water a lot, and do a trans sect, where we have the vehicle go straight out and come in and at points during that line take measurements or samples, and take a reading of where it is with GPS and then bring all of that data back.”

L’MAR’s success will be a turning point for the School of Freshwater Sciences, as they receive samples from the lake that they have never before been able to study. For Consi. success will have come from years of dreaming, innovation, and the help of generations of smart and driven students, all eager to pioneer the depths of the lakes and oceans.

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