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John Leonard

Picture of John LeonardImagine driving down an unfamiliar road and trying to find your way while simultaneously constructing a map of the area. Now, get rid of the road and submerge yourself in water, and you’ll get an idea of what John Leonard is up against in his research. An assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Ocean Engineering, Leonard is currently focusing on how an underwater robot can at once build a map of an unknown environment and navigate through that terrain. "It’s an area of research still in its infancy, says Leonard. "And it’s relevant not just for underwater vehicles, but for robots operating in nursing homes, on the surface of Mars, and in underground mines."

Leonard first got interested in robots while working in college at a General Motors plant that manufactured Chevrolets. The plant was introducing robotics that required tearing up the facility to bury wires in the floor that the robots could follow. Leonard wondered why the robots couldn’t instead navigate by perceiving their surroundings. That led him to his Ph.D. work at Oxford, where he studied navigation in land robots. From there, he came to MIT Sea Grant’s Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) Laboratory, where he focused on using sonar underwater to help vehicles navigate.

Leonard’s current project, funded by MIT Sea Grant, also employs sonar as a tool for underwater sensing. Part of the inspiration for that, he says, comes from the animal world. "We know that bats, dolphins and whales use sonar to find food and presumably to navigate." The challenge, says Leonard, is to develop ways to use sonar that mimic or copy the way, say, a dolphin uses sonar.

Along with his research, which includes a few other projects, Leonard keeps busy with his teaching load. With Tom Consi, a research engineer in the Department of Ocean Engineering, he co-teaches a course in which students develop and enhance their own AUV. "This year the students have added sonar to their AUV, Autolycus, and their challenge is to find an object in the pool," he says. The exact object, notes Leonard, is up to the students, who are learning that design is an iterative process, demanding many choices.

Such decision-making skills, explains Leonard, are helpful for robots too. Along with research for underwater vehicles, he has a land robot that he hopes will one day successfully navigate its way around MIT’s campus: a feat not easily mastered by many a human traveler.

-Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant


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