My Robotics Internship Working with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

Northwestern Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) student Ethan Park talks about the unique elements of his internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Ethan Park spent his summer interning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California, where he was able to work as a Robot Operating System (ROS) software developer. The experience confirmed his interest in underwater robots and allowed him to use the knowledge he learned in Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program to better support MBARI and its initiatives.

Park took some time to reflect on his unique experience, the lessons he learned and why he thinks the internship is such a valuable opportunity for MSR students.

What were your roles and responsibilities at mbari?

I basically had two roles. The first one was as a ROS software developer, playing around with a set of ROS packages called Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Simulator (UUV Sim for short) that MBARI was looking into for simulating their long-range autonomous underwater vehicles. 

The second role was a summer intern, which meant: 

  • Partaking in intern group activities, like kayaking in the Elkhorn Slough 
  • Touring nearby scientific and oceanographic research facilities, NASA Ames Research Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and Hopkins Marine Station 
  • Attending weekly seminars hosted by MBARI covering a range of topics both in marine biology and in engineering
  • Helping out with MBARI's annual public open-house
  • And last, but certainly not least, getting to go out on the boats to help launch the LRAUVs and also going out on one of their bigger research vessels as part of a research cruise. The cruise that I went on was a day-long evaluation of MBARI's seabed mapping autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

What did you learn from the experience?

As an engineering student and more so as a roboticist, I was in the extreme minority among my intern cohort. Most of the others were marine biology students. I would sometimes talk to them and then realize that they had no idea what I was talking about, because I was so used to my fellow MSR colleagues and other engineers, and vice versa, as they would go on about some esoteric plankton or jellyfish. Plus, a lot of them grew up living and breathing the outdoors, whether that be the ocean or mountains, whereas I had spent a lot of time in the Midwest without proximity to either. So, the cultural and mindset difference was quite significant, too. It was a really valuable and worldly lesson in perspective. 

That being said, when I went up to Mountain View for a ROS meet up with my mentor, he said to me at the end of the evening that he felt that I fit right in, which meant a lot to me.

How were you able to apply lessons learned in MSR to the internship?

I got extremely lucky in that my Winter quarter project served as a fantastic introduction to what I would be doing for my internship, though of course, I didn't know it back then. When I was choosing my project I had just discovered an interest in underwater robots, so I stumbled upon the UUV Sim while looking into how ROS was used for underwater robots. Therefore, my project was basically to get familiar with UUV Sim and use it to implement an underwater plume-tracking algorithm. And because of all the source code that I looked through for UUV Sim, as a positive side effect, I got a lot more familiar with how ROS itself worked, which proved to be useful for my internship, especially for giving a final presentation on my project.

How did your internship tie into your final project?

At the ROS meetup mentioned earlier, I met a few engineers who were working on integrating ROS2 into a BlueROV2, a commercial underwater remotely-operated vehicle. This was extremely serendipitous since my final project essentially is integrating ROS into a BlueROV2 to create an underwater robot platform for Dr. Mitra Hartmann's lab to use in their experiments. So now I have some people that I can ask for help and advice for my final project.

In what way do you think your internship experience will impact the rest of your time in MSR as well as your career after graduation?

I would say that my time at MBARI really focused my career interests. That being said, underwater robotics is already a fair niche application of robotics and I want to work in a research-oriented setting, which limits options even further. It'll certainly be more difficult to fulfill these conditions, but I'm happy that I've found what I want to do.

Why do you think the internship opportunity is important to the overall MSR experience?

As graduate students, we're expected to have or develop specializations in our major. I think an internship serves to hone our specialties by adding another facet to our experiences. It's one thing to take a bunch of classes and do a project on a specialty, and something else to actually put it to use for a company or organization. In cases like mine, it can serve to affirm a specialty that I have chosen.