Franz Hover

"It was a light green poster," says Franz Hover, describing what led him as an Ohio undergraduate to a summer fellowship at WHOI. After that came a ScD in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Ocean Engineering, and a number of projects with MIT Sea Grant. He is currently assistant professor in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering and holds a Doherty Professorship in Ocean Utilization.

Hover explains that back when he started out at WHOI, the Titanic had just been discovered, prompting a lot of interest in deep-towed camera systems. "We were interested in figuring out how you drive the boat and get the heavy cable to go where you want it to; there is a similar problem in the offshore oil industry," he says. That question of manipulation figures in Hover's current research as well. With Doherty funding, the Hover Research Group is developing a manipulation system for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in unknown environments.

While researchers understand, in theory, how AUVs might gather materials from the deep sea, he notes that practical systems have not yet been demonstrated. Hover's project is aimed at giving AUVs the ability to sample benthic organisms, including corals, rocks and sediments. So equipped, vehicles will be able to support studies in earth history, climate change, paleoceanography, and potentially, drug discovery. Autonomous intervention also offers promise in deepwater offshore production.

For several years Hover has been developing an AUV capable of hovering in one spot. This summer he and MITSG staff took that vehicle, Odyssey IV, to George's Bank to search for the invasive species Didemnum on the sea floor. That first scientific mission was followed by September sea trials in Woods Hole, in which the AUV demonstrated its ability to stay in one place, much like a helicopter, while adjusting for currents and detecting obstacles.

Hover's group is also involved in a Singapore-MIT Alliance aimed at using AUVs in research missions in and around Singapore Harbor. In addition, the group is developing motion planning algorithms that will allow AUVs to inspect ship hullsówithout posing risks to divers. And in another project, Hover and colleagues are helping to develop the power systems for an all-electric naval ship, which could have enhanced robustness to damage, improved fuel efficiency and maneuvering, reduced internal volume, and a smaller crew size.

Hover is currently preparing for a mission off the coast of Long Beach, California to look at corals some 800 meters down. But ask him which trip to sea he's enjoyed most, and he shakes his head. "I get seasick," he says. "It's a hazard of the job."

------Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant