Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Technology for Marine Life Tracking

Over the past decades, technology for tracking marine life has matured to the point where fish and sharks can be tracked for months to years and their trajectories can be geo-referenced with meter level accuracy. Often the individuals are tagged with acoustic transmitters that are detected and localized with a static receiver array affixed to the individual’s local habitat. For individuals that have longer migratory paths, active tracking systems are typically used where a directional acoustic receiver is affixed to a boat that is manually driven to follow the individual by driving in the direction where the acoustic signal is strongest. More recently, acoustic receivers have been affixed to Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), underwater robots that can be programmed to autonomously follow the individual being tracked.

The work proposed here aims to extend the development of AUV tracking technology, and apply it to a highly relevant specific marine life monitoring study that is understudied due to its remote proximity: the active tracking of nurse sharks and sea turtles within their habitat located in Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica. The nurse sharks and sea turtles typically reside in adjacent coves located on the north western shores of Costa Rica. This location is ideal to not only test and develop robotics technology that is required for such sampling, but also produce new data regarding the motion behaviors of these relevant species. In particular, the contributions of this work are highly interdisciplinary and will include 1) shark and turtle habitat mapping, 2) multi-AUV-single-transceiver system development, 3) novel acoustic tag development, and 4) nurse shark and sea turtle tracking experiments in Costa Rica.

To facilitate this research, the PIs have launched a 3-year cohort-based program, with each cohort consisting of 3 Harvey Mudd College students, 3 CSU Long Beach biology students, and 3 University of Costa Rica biology students. Each summer a new cohort of HMC and CSULB students will travel to Costa Rica for up to 2-4 weeks to work with hosts Drs. Mario Espinoza and Maike Heidemeyer, as well as their students from UCR. This program will be housed under the Prof. Clark's International Computer Engineering eXperience (ICEX) program. The cohort is trained in both robotics and the culture of the host country. Unique to the proposed ICEX program associated with this grant proposal will be 1) a focus on training LatinX students, (typically underrepresented in the robotics community) and 2) leveraging interdisciplinary aspects of the students in the cohorts.

TO NOTE: Our travel to Costa Rica has been put on hold for the last 2 years. We hope this changes soon and we can continue our intended travel.

HMC students will be involved with, among other tasks, robot system integration, shark/turtle motion modelling, motion planning algorithm development, testing, fieldwork, publication writing. In applying for work on this project, students should write a 1 page (maximum length) essay answering these two questions:

1. What they hope to gain from working on this project?

2. What they hope to be able to contribute to this project?

Name of research group, project, or lab
Lab for Autonomous and Intelligent Robotics (LAIR)
Why join this research group or lab?

The LAIR is not only a research live, but a thriving network of roboticists that extends beyond campus. The goals of the LAIR are not only to conduct research but also provide long term career path opportunities through teaching, mentoring, connections. Graduates of the LAIR go on to join top organizations in industry and academia (i.e. via admission to graduate school). The PI aims to provide guidance throughout a graduate school application process.

Representative publication
Logistics Information:
Project categories
Machine Learning
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

For this project, the LAIR is looking for students with, although not mandatory:

  • Problem solving skills
  • The ability to work both independently and within a team.
  • The ability to work in difficult situations - i.e. in another country where communication, cultural, and technical barriers exist.
  • The ability to speak Spanish 
  • Engineering education (e.g. E79) 
  • Computer Science education (e.g. CS 60)
  • Zoology education
  • Experience with robotics
  • Experience with underwater technology
  • Strong swimming abilities (a bonus!)
Time commitment
Spring - Part Time
Summer - Full Time
Academic Credit
Paid Research
Number of openings
Techniques learned
  • Underwater robot deployment logistics
  • Basics of underwater robot technology
  • State estimation as applied to shark, turtle tracking
  • Multi-robot systems motion planning
  • Fish tracking logistics
  • Fish motion modeling via stochastic models
Contact Information:
Chris Clark
Name of project director or principal investigator
Christopher Clark
Email address of project director or principal investigator
2 sp. | 29 appl.
Hours per week
Spring - Part Time (+1)
Spring - Part TimeSummer - Full Time
Project categories
Biomechanics (+2)
BiomechanicsMachine LearningRobotics