Highlights from an interview with Ani Hsieh, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania

Q: You are a faculty member in both the General Robotics Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab and the Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub (PERCH), and your lab is on Pennovation’s campus. Would you explain how these organizations are related and how you work within them?

A: GRASP is an academic and research center focused on robotics within the School of Engineering. PERCH is the entrepreneurial extension of GRASP.  Having our lab located on Pennovation’s campus gives us the experimental and collaboration space we need to test applications and accelerate innovation.

One of our primary goals is to learn how to use teams of robots for monitoring applications. Our main project right now is ocean monitoring. We have a big tank, (approximately 3500 gallons) that allows us to create certain types of flow conditions that are observed in the ocean. This allows us to validate surveillance and monitoring strategies we develop for the robot teams in a realistic flow setting. We are trying to figure out how to better coordinate autonomous marine and aerial vehicles to work collaboratively for tracking and monitoring different dynamic processes in the ocean. This work can help us better understand how contaminants disperse, how to improve search and rescue efforts in a marine environment using both aerial and marine assets, and possibly even how to better manage the water quality.

Q: Your research interests include marine robotics and geophysical fluid dynamics.  How do you see your research being applied to help water utilities in the future?

A: We are learning how to design strategies that will improve data collection efforts within the marine environment. Our goal is to develop autonomous systems capable of collecting high quality, high-resolution data, both spatially and temporally. We believe autonomous vehicles are well suited for obtaining high-resolution data since they can take measurements at many different locations and do it more efficiently and cost effectively when compared to existing strategies. Autonomous vehicles also have the added advantage that they can get to places that are difficult or dangerous for humans to work in. Our vision is to enable a human operator to command and control multiple autonomous assets simultaneously to collect data in real time. This is important for monitoring water quality and for figuring out how run offs travel or collect.  It could help us understand how concentrations of chemicals change over time and determine cause and effect for spikes in concentrations of certain types of chemicals.

Q: Are there any current projects you are particularly excited about that you would like water leaders to know about?

A:  My favorite project right now is developing strategies for power constrained mobile sensors in the ocean to synchronize when and where they meet to offload and/or exchange data.  The idea is that sensor swarms deployed in large scale environments will occasionally have to meet up and exchange information or offload the collected data so it can be used to provide an up to date description of the environment. For power constrained vehicles it makes sense to leverage the ocean currents to get to where they need to go. So how can we get these mobile sensors to meet up with other each other by using the ocean currents to move from one location to another? This problem is very similar to the problem of getting coupled oscillators to synchronize. Many systems in nature can exhibit such synchronization behavior. For example, collectives of fireflies can synchronize their flashes and the neurons in the brain can synchronize when they fire. Our work suggests that it is possible to solve the problem of synchronizing time of arrivals at a given location for sensor swarms by treating it as a coupled oscillator synchronization problem. While synchronizing mobile sensors in the ocean is a bit trickier, we were a bit surprised at how similar the problems are.

Q:  As you know, water quality and scarcity issues will only increase in the future. What issues do you feel are essential to explore through research in order to address these issues?

A: Although we are not working on these issues right now, contaminants are going to be an increasing problem, so tracking what is in the water is going to be more important in the future. The better you can track and map what is in the water, the better you will be able to figure out good mitigation strategies for specific concerns. When we consider investment in new infrastructure, it will be important to determine what the instrumentation needs are to help deliver water services more efficiently, effectively and equitably. I believe autonomy will have a lot to contribute.

Q:  How would you recommend that the water industry work with researchers and academics to help address critical water issues?

A: We are always interested in hearing from practitioners and helping solve real world problems. We may not always have a solution right off the bat, but we are always looking for opportunities for collaboration. Collaborations can range from large-scale externally funded projects that fund post-doctoral researchers and full time PhD students to sponsorship for Senior Design projects or Masters theses. I believe with the right problem and the right team, there are opportunities for collaborations between industry and academia that can be very fruitful and impactful. We are always happy to have people come visit and show off what we are doing.