Three high school students received awards for their computer science research at Oregon State University. Audrey Au, Caroline Gao, and Geraldine Noa-Guerva were winners of the 2021 Aspirations in Computing award for the Oregon and Washington chapter of National Center for Women & Information Technology. Au and Gao also received honorable mention for the national NCWIT AiC award.

All three worked in the area of human-computer interaction, specifically how well problem-solving software supports different genders in problem-solving activities. The students worked with Margaret Burnett, distinguished professor of computer science, and Anita Sarma, associate professor of computer science, who co-direct The GenderMag Project.

“Working in Dr. Burnett’s lab was a genuinely life-changing experience for me,” Gao said. “I realized the full potential of technology to drive equity and social good. The intersectional approach we took to every issue reframed my perception of many societal issues.”

After her research experience, Gao launched a cultural awareness project, called The World in Us, with other students, including Au. The two taught classes through Oregon State’s Talented and Gifted Programs for elementary school students. The project was highlighted by the Albany Democrat Herald.

Au is co-author on an article that won a best paper award at the 2021 International Conference of Software Engineering. She wants to continue tostudy human-computer interaction to facilitate the inclusion of groups often marginalized and underrepresented in tech.

Noa-Guerva also plans to use the knowledge she gained through her research experience about inequities in computing when she pursues a career in technology. She is currently giving virtual English and programming lessons to children in Peru.

“Having these bright, passionate young women in our research group over summer was a privilege. Through their hard work they helped further our research. We look forward to mentoring them as they progress through their careers,” Sarma said.

In April 2016, Oregon State University engineering doctoral students Dylan Jones and Seth McCammon deploy a Seabotix remotely operated vehicle to perform an autonomous underwater survey at the North Energy Test Site off the coast of Newport, OR.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office recently announced support of up to $22 million for 10 marine energy research projects, including three represented by researchers from Oregon State University’s College of Engineering. (The award amounts for each project are under negotiation.) 

“For industry to move toward commercialization, we need to utilize all of our available resources,” said  Daniel R. Simmons, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, in a Dec. 22 article on the DOE website. “With this funding opportunity, we addressed several critical gaps in the marine energy industry to advance early-stage R&D and build testing infrastructure, as well as foster collaboration among non-federal research entities.”

One of the proposed projects, led by Oregon State, will consider the co-design of marine energy converters for autonomous underwater vehicle docking and recharging. Two partner institutions, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will play supporting roles. 

“No one has been able to design a system to reliably dock an autonomous underwater vehicle with a marine energy converter in energetic ocean conditions,” said Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the energy converter project. “We would be the first to do that. It would open up a huge new market for inspection, monitoring, and repairs in marine energy systems without relying on expensive ship support.” 

Testing will be conducted in the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Lab at Oregon State. 

In a second project, researchers will test models for integrating marine energy into microgrids. Oregon State will support the work, which will be led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Microgrids are local energy grids that can be connected to the main energy grid or operated independently. 

“Over the past few years, there’s been agreement on what are good models for wind generation and other renewable energy sources, but models for marine hydrokinetic converters need further validation and benchmarking,” said Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the microgrid project. “I’m most excited about bringing together the marine microgrid environment and the expertise of on-shore power engineers to leverage their historical knowledge of how to run power systems efficiently and safely, while advancing new forms of clean energy that the ocean provides.”

For the third project involving the College of Engineering, researchers will pursue the development of modeling methods that facilitate the design of wave energy converters. The venture will be led by the University of Washington and supported by Oregon State and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Members of the Energy Systems Group inspect microgrid electrical equipment in at the Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables facility at Oregon State, February 2019. From left: College of Engineering graduate Marissa Kwon; Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez; Yue Cao, assistant professor of electrical & computer engineering; Ted Brekken; and doctoral student Ali Haider.

Wave energy converters transform the kinetic and potential energy of ocean waves into mechanical or electrical energy.

“Our objective is to develop models for wave energy converters that bring electrical, hydrodynamic, and mechanical domains under one framework and that lead to improved simulation speed, flexibility, and design,” said Ted Brekken, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State and one of the researchers representing the team focused on the model’s electrical components.

Bryson Robertson, associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State and principal investigator for the wave energy modeling project, offered a broader context about the potential impact of all three endeavors: “The work will help to fill fundamental gaps in our knowledge of marine energy sources and to overcome barriers to the development of emerging technologies,” he said. “Ultimately we hope it leads to reduced costs and improved performance of renewable marine energy.” The projects will also offer cross-disciplinary research experiences for College of Engineering students. 

— By Steve Frandzel

Robotics researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University are working with colleagues at the University of Washington through a partnership with the Pacific Marine Energy Center to help the Navy develop new technology to expand the abilities of robotic arms mounted on remotely operated vehicles beneath the ocean surface. 

The Office of Naval Research earlier this year awarded a three-year, $3.3 million grant to the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab, of which $2.2 million will go to Oregon State. Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics, heads up the Oregon State team. 

ROVs are “unoccupied, highly maneuverable underwater machines that can be used to explore ocean depths while being operated by someone at the water surface,” according to the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Think of them as remote-controlled submarines. ROV operations eliminate human presence underwater and are thus safer and easier to conduct than operations employing divers or occupied submersibles. 

Initially developed for industrial tasks like pipeline inspection, ROVs have been adapted for a variety of other tasks, many of them scientific and educational. A typical ROV is equipped with cameras and lights at minimum, but they often come loaded with additional instruments, such as probes or robotic arms. ROVs can be as small as a toaster oven or as large as a truck. Whatever their size, they’re controlled remotely by an operator in a surface vessel with a joystick, similar to a video game controller. 

“Our project focuses on moving the role of the operator from one of low-level control to that of providing high-level, explainable goals for subsequent execution by the robotic arm,” Hollinger said. “We’re doing fundamental research on algorithms for robotic control, perception, planning, and decision-support, as well as hardware design, to improve the efficiency and reliability of subsea manipulation of the robotic arm.” 

The researchers, including Oregon State engineers Julie Adams, Joe Davidson, Heather Knight, Fuxin Li, and Kagan Tumer, will work with a robotic arm mounted on a test stand, with the future goal of mounting the arm on remotely operated vehicles while maintaining human-in-the-loop control authority, Hollinger said.

 Keith Hautala

Yue Cao, center, and Ted Brekken, right, affiliated faculty with the Pacific Marine Energy Center, work on rotating machinery in the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility lab.

Engineering researchers at Oregon State University are collaborating with colleagues at the University of Michigan on a project to convert river and ocean currents into electric current, using reconfigurable, high-efficiency micro-turbines. 

The research is supported by a $3.9 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, through its SHARKS (Submarine Hydrokinetic And Riverine Kilo-megawatt Systems) program, one of 11 projects announced in November, totaling $35 million.

The Michigan project, dubbed “RAFT: Reconfigurable Array of High-Efficiency Ducted Turbines for Hydrokinetic Energy Harvesting,” bases its approach on an array of micro-turbines with a modularized architecture and reconfigurable units, making it adaptable to different applications and marine environments. 

The RAFT team incorporates experts in hydrodynamics, structural dynamics, control systems, power electronics, grid connections, and performance optimization. Oregon State’s team, led by Yue Cao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is specifically responsible for the electrical energy conversion subsystem, including hardware and control designs from the generator terminals to the grid connections. Ted Brekken, professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the Wallace Energy Systems and Renewables Facility, will support the effort.

“What’s particularly appealing about this project is that it’s focused on making the technology practical, giving strong consideration to environmental impact and economic viability,” Cao said. “Also, because our team is multidisciplinary, our project will apply concurrent, as opposed to sequential, design methodologies — namely control co-design, as highlighted by the SHARKS program.”

The team will develop new hydrokinetic turbine designs to harvest energy from tidal and riverine currents. The project will significantly reduce the levelized cost of energy, a measure of the average lifetime cost of energy-generating technology per unit of energy generated. 

“Hydrokinetic energy is an abundant renewable resource that can boost grid resiliency and reduce infrastructure vulnerability, but it is currently cost-prohibitive compared to other sources,” Cao said. “The RAFT concept is a promising candidate to address this barrier by designing new, efficient systems to harness our nation’s tidal, riverine, and ocean resources.” 

Levelized cost reductions will be realized through multiple approaches, Cao says, including increasing generation efficiency, increasing rotor area relative to mass, lowering operation and maintenance costs, reducing impacts on the environment, and improving system reliability.

Keith Hautala

By Majeed Badizadegan

Oregon and neighboring states have been devastated by unprecedented wildfires this summer. 

David L. Blunck, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University

High temperatures, strong winds, dry conditions, and low humidity have combined to create the massive blazes, says David L. Blunck, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

Blunck studies wildfires and the hazards they pose to people and property in the wildland-urban interface. A longtime Oregon resident, Blunck says he could not recall a time when fires posed a more immediate threat to so many in the state. 

“This fire event is unusual in the scope, number, size, and communities affected,” he said. 

Blunck’s research focuses on how wildfires spread through spot fires, which form when firebrands — pieces of burning material such as wood, needles, cones, or bark — break off from structures or trees and are carried in the air. Specifically, he studies the generation of firebrands and what controls ignition once they land. Thin fuels, such as needles on trees, can ignite quickly, Blunck explains. 

“Even seemingly small shifts in humidity can greatly impact how easily smaller fuels ignite,” he said. 

In extreme fire events, firebrands can be carried by winds on the order of 10 miles. During the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, a firebrand jumped the Columbia River from Oregon to start a new blaze on the Washington side, about 4 miles away. Firebrands pose a serious threat to homes. They can jump containment lines and start new fires by landing on roofs or decks, or by entering houses through ducts and windows. 

Infrared imaging shows firebrands emitting from a burning tree.

In partnership with the College of Forestry, Blunck has set up experiments burning trees up to 20 feet tall. His team collects, counts, and measures the characteristics of firebrands that land on the ground. Their aim is to learn how different tree types burn and emit firebrands. To date, there is little research the size and scope of Blunck’s work. He hopes his research helps push forward the field and increase understanding of how wildfires propagate with different fuel sources. 

Blunck is working with collaborators to share results and to improve the fidelity of computational models in order to more accurately predict firebrand behavior. This ultimately could help in prioritization of fire response. 

“Fires are part of the ecosystem, and part of Mother Nature. It’s part of the natural cycle,” Blunck said. “We are going to have fires, and they are going to get worse. Changes in the climate, increased fuel within forests, and humans living closer to the wilderness make it a perfect storm for fires.” 

The majority of fires are put out quickly. However, this creates a vulnerability to wildland-urban interfaces as the forest floor accumulates more and more fuel. Blunck hopes to see more prescribed burns to reduce the buildup of fuel and updated building codes to make structures more fire-resistant. 

“People don’t like the smoke from prescribed burns. No one likes smoke,” Blunck said. “You can have your smoke in the spring when you know it will go away. Or you can have it in the summer when it’s much more dangerous and there are no guarantees.”

Living in Oregon means living next to large swaths of wilderness. This proximity offers benefits that many residents enjoy, but it also brings risks. ”We need to mitigate the risk to homes and structures. Firefighters will not be able to contain every fire,” Blunck said. “Oregon residents must be more in tune with the risk of wildfire. We must acknowledge it and face it head-on.”