Ryan Eustice

Assistant Professor, University of Michigan 

Dr. Ryan Eustice joined the faculty of the University of Michigan as Assistant Professor in the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering in July 2006.  He comes to the University of Michigan from Johns Hopkins University, where he was a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.  Dr. Eustice holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan State University (1998) and a Ph.D. in Ocean Engineering from the MIT/WHOI Joint-Program (2005). During his graduate school tenure, he was a member of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Deep Submergence Laboratory and co-developer of the SeaBED Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV)

Dr. Eustice's research deals with the problem of autonomous navigation and mapping for mobile robots, in particular AUVs, with a focus on computer vision techniques for perceptual sensing.  The goal of his work is to enable robots with the ability to autonomously navigate and map their environment, recognizing previously visited places much as a human would.  Since GPS does not work underwater, underground, on other planets, or even inside buildings, solving this problem is critical to developing practical, capable, autonomous mobile robots. To study this problem, Dr. Eustice develops algorithms (software) in the areas of underwater computer vision and image processing, Bayesian filtering and smoothing, and systems engineering, in conjunction with new platform development (hardware) such as time-synchronized acoustic navigation systems and AUVs.

On Your Career…

What is your educational background?
B.S. Mechanical Engineering, Michigan State University
PhD, Oceanographic Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
When I was nearing graduation from my undergraduate degree program at MSU, I decided that I wanted to continue my education and get a PhD. Since childhood, I was always fascinated with space and wanted to work at NASA. So when I was considering graduate schools for my PhD, all of the universities that I was looking at had an aerospace program. Well, it so happened that when I was checking out the webpage for MIT I stumbled upon a link for the MIT/WHOI Joint Program. That’s where I first learned about AUVs and I was instantly hooked. I applied and was accepted into the MIT/WHOI Joint Program and got to work in the Deep Submergence Lab at WHOI. That’s where I learned about all of the systems, technology, and operations that go into making a successful underwater robot.

How and where do you conduct your work?
Basically, all over the world. I’ve been on research cruises in the Mediterranean looking for ancient Roman and Greek shipwrecks; in the middle of the Southern Atlantic looking for hydrothermal vent systems at the mid-ocean ridge; in the Artic deploying AUVs under the polar ice cap; in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary collecting data on scallop populations for fisheries management; in Puerto Rico looking at the health of deep-sea coral reefs; and here in Michigan in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary looking for new shipwrecks in the unsurveyed areas of the Sanctuary.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work?
I work with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). AUVs are essentially free-swimming underwater robots. They carry batteries for power and have computers inside to process and control the vehicle while it is subsea. They are completely autonomous. We literally throw them over the side of the boat and then wait for them to do the survey and come back with the data. Unlike an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), there is no human piloting the AUV, all of the “brains” are onboard the AUV.

What research projects are you currently involved in?
The research focus of my lab is to make AUVs smarter. We work on developing new algorithms (software) for the computers inside the AUVs to allow them to interpret and process the camera and sonar data they are collecting. For example, imagine that you are vacationing in Paris, France and you get lost, but all of a sudden you spot the Eifel Tower – as a human, you’d probably have a pretty good idea of where you are in the city and you wouldn’t be lost any more. We work on making robots have that same capability by using camera or sonar imagery that they collect while underwater. When the robots passes over a part of the seafloor or wreck that it has seen before, it is able to recognize objects it’s previously seen and use that information to correct its navigation error.

What have you learned so far from your research?
One application of our research is that we are working on a project for the Navy to use AUVs to autonomously survey and map the hulls of ships (like aircraft carriers) while they are in port or harbor. They do this now using human divers, but we are working on adapting our camera-based navigation technology so that the AUV can map and navigation with respect to the hull of the ship; similar to how we use it when navigating over the seafloor.

What do you like the best about your job?
I like going to sea and traveling all around the world. One of the great things about my job is that we get to work in some really neat places and use AUVs to help further ocean science and marine archaeology.

What do you like the least about your job?
That fact that I travel so much and spend time away from my family.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about what you do?
That oceanography and ocean engineering are the same thing. As an ocean engineer, I work on the technology to make AUVs faster, better, smarter, cheaper. Whereas an oceanographer is more focused on studying the actual underlying physical processes in the ocean such as tides, currents, and air-sea interaction.

Where have you traveled for your work?
Brazil, Greece, Artic, Norway, East & West coasts of USA, Japan, Bermuda, Puerto Rico

Where’s your favorite place that you’ve been to so far?
I’d have to say the Arctic. It was like watching the Discovery Channel, except I was really there! 

What is the most incredible thing that has happened to you while conducting your work?
Sending a robot to 4km below the ocean surface and having it come back with data.

What are some of the different career opportunities that are associated with the work that you do?
In general, robotics is really taking off as a career field. We finally have enough computational power that robots are able to do some pretty intelligent things on their own. More and more you will see aspects of robotics in our daily lives, from AUVs to robot vacuum cleaners to self-driving cars, there are countless opportunities to have a career in robotics.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Science and math are the backbone of what goes into engineering and building AUVs. But in addition to science and math, grammar and writing are important elements too. You’d be surprised at just how much a scientist or engineer has to “write” in terms of journal articles, grant proposals, and technical communication.

On Exploring the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary…

Why do research in the ocean in general and in the Thunder Bay region specifically?
Over 70 percent of our plant’s surface is covered in water. Planet Earth is really a misnomer, it really should be called Planet Ocean! We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our ocean seafloor. The same goes true for the Great Lakes and the Thunder Bay Sanctuary. I like to work in the Sanctuary, specifically, because it is a great testbed where I can work on developing the algorithms that make AUVs smarter, and at the same time help out the Sanctuary by providing them with maps and data about the wrecks in the Sanctuary.

What about doing work in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is most exciting to you?
Working with the NOAA staff to find and map new shipwrecks and to help present that information to the public. We are working on making an AUV display for the NOAA TBMNS exhibit center to help educate the public about AUV technology and hopefully to inspire and attract new youngsters to study science and math so that they can work in robotics.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary?
That they too can work on projects like this in the Sanctuary. I’m originally from Cheboygan, MI and graduated from Cheboygan Area High School. I studied hard in math and science and they can do the same if they want to work on underwater robotics projects like I do.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I guess mostly science fiction books because I always had an interest in space and science.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
An astronaut.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
That you can do whatever you want no matter your background or if you’re from a small town. Dream big and work hard, and everything else will fall into place.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
My mom for instilling in me an early age the importance of studying hard in school and to encouraging me to follow my dreams.

When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Be with my family (I have a wife, a 4-year-old son, a 2-year-old daughter, and a 6-month-old daughter).

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Just do it!

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic