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.”

The 2018 Graduate Research Showcase took place on Feb. 8 at the LaSells Stewart Center on Oregon State University’s campus in Corvallis. Nearly 150 students presented their research to more than 500 attendees, including industry, students, faculty, and the greater OSU community.

First, second, and third place awards were were granted to the top presenters in each school based on intellectual merit, potential impact, and oral and visual communication skills. The award winners were also invited to attend the 2018 Oregon Stater Awards to present their research.

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By Steve Frandzel
Stemming the flow: Students identify costly stormwater intrusion in Corvallis sewers systemBy analyzing average daily water flow rates through the Corvallis sewer system and the length of time that pumping stations operated, Mathew Palmer and his Expo project team determined that large volumes of excess water is infiltrating the system through cracks and fissures in underground pipes.

“Whenever it rains a lot, water seeps into the sewer system through these cracks,” explained Palmer, who is graduating with a degree in chemical engineering. “That means the pumping stations have to work longer, and that costs Corvallis money that could be spent on other things.” Continue reading