Undergraduate Research

SURFO SPECIAL: Robots and Velcro: How You’re $2,500 Away from Being an Oceanographer

Each summer, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) hosts undergraduate students from all over the country to participate in oceanographic research. These Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFOs) have not only been working with GSO scientists, but they also have spent part of their time learning how to communicate this science to the public. Read on to find out what they have been up to, and why everyone should be as excited as they are about their work.


Born and raised in Rhode Island, Ashley is a returning University of Rhode Island student who is passionate about the ocean, cooking, and softball.  After completing undergraduate degrees in Marine Biology and Ocean Engineering, Ashley intends to apply to graduate school to further her knowledge of Ocean Engineering and pursue a career in research. Read about her summer research below:

While a remote-controlled vehicle and Velcro-laced, light-up LED sneakers sound more like the deepest desires five-year old you scrawled barely legibly on your Christmas Wish List, what if I told you they could also play a role in cutting edge scientific research?  To be fair, the sneakers are excluded from that statement, but the Velcro, like mom jeans and crop tops, is making a resurgence in popularity, at least for GeoFF, the brainchild of robotics researchers at the University of Rhode Island.

GeoFF Measuring Ocean Depth at Castle Hill in Newport, RI. Photo Courtesy of Roy Gilboa


GeoFF stands for Geophysical Feature Finder and is an Unmanned Surface Vehicle or USV designed to autonomously measure ocean depth and conduct water quality assessments.  GeoFF is an engineer’s toy robot, a vehicle capable of driving itself across any pond, bay, or even the open ocean, all while being able to be broken down and stored in a backpack when not in use.  Figure 2 shows these core components pre-attachment to its platform.

GeoFF’s Operational Hardware and Software Pre-Attachment to its Platform
Photo Courtesy of Ashley Hutchins

What makes GeoFF truly special, however, is that for a cool $2,500, you too could have your own GeoFF.  GeoFF is built using all commercially available products, including hardware and software components designed for hobbyist drone use simply attached to an inflatable stand-up paddleboard.  Do you remember that Velcro we mentioned?  Shockingly enough, all that keeps GeoFF attached to its paddleboard platform is Dual Lock, Velcro’s 3M competitor.  You read that correctly; the same method of making sure those light-up sneakers stayed on your feet is the only way GeoFF’s components are fixed in place to make the vehicle operational.  Everything from GeoFF’s computer “brain” to its two thrusters which move and steer the vehicle through the water are impermanently attached with that iconic technology.

Research Questions

Although, these impermanent attachments beg several questions.  Where should GeoFF’s two thrusters be placed?  What should be their location and orientation?  Should they be attached in the same place for every use?  Should their placement be dictated by any environmental conditions GeoFF may face in operation?  Moreover, if GeoFF is operational on its current inflatable stand-up paddleboard, could the vehicle be operational on a bodyboard or a surfboard too?  These are precisely the questions I sought to answer this summer as a research fellow with the SURFO program at the University of Rhode Island.

How GeoFF Works

GeoFF operates its two thrusters under the principal of differential thrust.  Think of how you might push a shopping cart in a store.  You can apply equal pressure to push the cart directly forward or to pull the cart directly back, but how do you turn?  You turn by applying different forces to one side compared to the other. By applying more force to the right side of the cart, the cart turns left whereas applying more force to the left side of the cart turns the cart to the right.  Similarly, if the thrusters are placed at more of an angle to the center axis of the vehicle, GeoFF can turn more easily which enables him to have more precise movement through the water.  You have seen this in practice when you parallel park.  The more you turn the wheel, the sharper the angle of the tires on the car, and the easier it is to turn over a smaller distance, otherwise known as a smaller turning ratio.  Through the geometry of GeoFF’s thruster placement, both in terms of location forward/back and left/right on the paddleboard as well as their attachment angles, GeoFF can be fine-tuned to operate in a wide range of environments.

Why Have Just One When You Can Have More?

GeoFF in operation at Rose Larissa Park in East Providence, RI. Photo Courtesy of Roy Gilboa

The geometry of GeoFF’s thruster placement coupled with GeoFF’s commercially available components open the possibility of researchers in Hawaii, high school students in Louisiana, and non-profits in Maryland to make the same surface vehicle capable of conducting scientific research.  Most USVs like Geoff are far more complex mechanically with rigid designs.  GeoFF’s brilliance comes from its versatility in design which makes the vehicle widely accessible with operational uses from high-level, academic applications to small-scale, local, community level applications as well.  With the need for coastal monitoring at an all-time high, the more GeoFFs in the water collecting usable data, the better.  Through modeling suitable thruster locations on any potential platform, this research completes some of the engineering leg-work needed to enable future GeoFF operators to achieve optimal data acquisition.

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